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The involuntary criminals behind pig-butchering scams

A new movie and book are raising public awareness about how international crypto scammers are also sometimes victims of human trafficking.

August 30, 2023
piglet caught in a text chain with a scammer
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Midjourney (piglet)

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology developments in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

There’s something so visceral about the phrase “pig-butchering scam.” The first time I came across it was in my reporting a year ago, when I was looking into how strange LinkedIn connection requests turned out to be from crypto scammers. 

As I wrote then, fraudsters were creating “fake profiles on social media sites or dating sites, [to] connect with victims, build virtual and often romantic relationships, and eventually persuade the victims to transfer over their assets.” The name, which scammers themselves came up with, compares the lengthy, involved trust-building process to what it’s like to grow a pig for slaughter. It’s a tactic that has been used to steal millions of dollars from victims on LinkedIn and other platforms. You can read that story here

But there are also other, far more dire consequences to these scams. And over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed growing attention, in both the US and China, to the scammers behind these crimes, who are often victims of the scams themselves. A new book in English, a movie in Chinese, and a slew of media reports in both languages are now shining light on the fascinating (and horrifying) aspects of a scary trend in human trafficking.

For a sense of scale, just last week Binance, one of the largest crypto exchanges, released data showing a huge jump in the number of pig-butchering scams reported to the company: an increase of 100.5% from 2022 to 2023, even though there are still a few months left in this year. 

This kind of fraud is the subject of a new Chinese movie that unexpectedly became a box-office hit. No More Bets is centered on two Chinese people who are lured to Myanmar with the promise of high-paying jobs; once trapped abroad, they are forced to become scammers, though—spoiler alert—they eventually manage to escape. But many of their fellow victims are abused, raped, or even killed for trying to do the same.

While the plot is fictional, it was adapted from dozens of interviews the movie crew conducted with real victims, some of which are shown at the end of the film. (I’ll probably check out the movie when it premieres in the US on August 31.)

Many low-level scammers have in fact been coerced into conducting crimes. They leave their homes with the hope of getting stable employment, but once they find themselves in a foreign country—usually Myanmar, Cambodia, or the Philippines—they are held captive and unable to leave.

Since the movie came out on August 8, it has made nearly $470 million at the box office, placing it among the top 10 highest-grossing movies worldwide this year, even though it was only screened in China. It has also dominated social media discourse in China, inspiring over a dozen trending topics on Weibo and other platforms. 

At the same time, investigative reports from Chinese journalists have corroborated the credibility of the movie’s plot. In a podcast published earlier this month, one Chinese-Malaysian victim told Wang Zhian, an exiled Chinese investigative journalist, about his experience of being lied to by job recruiters and forced to become a scammer in the Philippines. There, 80% of his colleagues were from mainland China, with the rest from Taiwan and Malaysia. 

Many of them are from rural areas and have little education. But as another Chinese publication recently reported, scammer groups are increasingly looking to recruit highly educated people as they target more Chinese students overseas, or even English-speaking populations. 

Chinese people are no strangers to telecom fraud and online scams, but the recent wave of attention has made them aware of how globalized these scams have become. It has also tarnished the reputation of Southeast Asian countries, which are now struggling to attract Chinese tourists.  

These days, if you type “Myanmar” into Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, all autocompletes are related to the pig-butchering scams, like the “self-told story of someone who escaped from Myanmar.” There are still videos promoting Myanmar to tourists, but the comment sections are filled with viewers who insinuate that the Burmese video creators are working for the human-trafficking groups. Myanmar even recently tried to work with a Chinese province to promote tourism, and most social media responses were negative

Meanwhile, in the US, Number Go Up, a new book about cryptocurrencies by Bloomberg reporter Zeke Faux, is out next month. Faux traveled to Sihanoukville in southwestern Cambodia, where criminal gangs orchestrate pig-butchering scams. It was once a prosperous casino town for Chinese businesspeople (gambling is outlawed in China). But after the Cambodian government turned against gambling, and the pandemic made international travel difficult, the gambling gangs turned their casinos into online scam operation centers. 

Faux visited one giant compound called “Chinatown,” where scam victims are trapped and isolated from the outside world by metal gates. Neighbors told Faux of frequent suicides: “If an ambulance doesn’t go inside at least twice a week, it is a wonder.” One victim told him he had to hide a phone in his rectum to get in touch with someone outside and escape. 

But stories of successful escapes are rare. Even though the Chinese government announced in mid-August that it would work more with Southeast Asian countries to crack down on these criminal activities, it remains to be seen how successful those efforts will be. In the case of Cambodia, international law enforcement actions so far have been obstructed by alleged corruption on the ground, according to a recent investigation by the New York Times.

As I reported last year, there are many factors that make it hard to hold these scammers accountable: their use of crypto, the weak government control in the regions where they operate, and the criminals’ ever-changing tactics and platform choices. But the fact that both reporting and pop culture are starting to draw attention to where and how these criminal groups operate could be a good first step toward justice.

What solution do you think can help reduce the number of pig-butchering scams? Let me know your thoughts at zeyi@technologyreview.com

Catch up with China

1. Forbes got a copy of a draft proposal from 2022 that would address national security concerns related to TikTok. While it is unclear whether the draft is still being considered a year later, it shows that the US government wanted unprecedented control over the platform’s internal data and essential functions. (Forbes)

2. After Japan started releasing treated radioactive water into the ocean last week, the Chinese government protested by banning seafood imports from the country. (CNN)

  • Many Chinese people are also mad about the release and have resolved to harass Japanese businesses with phone calls. (Al Jazeera)

3. The US commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, visited Beijing on Monday, making her the latest high-ranking Biden administration official to travel to the country. She agreed with her Chinese counterpart that they would launch an “information exchange” on export controls. (Associated Press)

4. A new type of battery developed by the Chinese company CATL can make fast charging for EVs even faster. (MIT Technology Review)

5. The Biden administration is hoping to secure a six-month extension of the Science and Technology Agreement with China, a 44-year-old document that fosters scientific collaboration. (NBC News)

6. Chinese ultra-fast-fashion company Shein will acquire a one-third stake of Forever 21’s operating company, Sparc Group. In return, Sparc will gain a minority stake in Shein. The Chinese company will start selling Forever 21 apparel online, while Forever 21 will take Shein products to its physical stores. (Wall Street Journal $)

7. DiDi, the troubled Chinese ride-hailing giant, is selling its electric-vehicle business to XPeng, a Chinese EV company. (Reuters $)

Lost in translation

Currently, there are over 2,700 online hospitals in China, where people can get diagnoses and prescriptions completely online. Because many of these platforms are able to come up with a prescription in less than two minutes, there’s widespread suspicion that they are risking patient health by relying on ChatGPT-like models. 

Last week, the industry was put on notice after Beijing’s Municipal Health Commission drafted a new regulation to ban AI-generated prescriptions. According to Sailing Health, a Chinese medical news publication, the city-wide regulation repeats and reinforces a March 2022 national policy that instituted the same kind of ban, but the new proposal comes at a time when people have started to see what large language models are capable of and when a few tech platforms have already started experimenting with medical AI. 

Following news of the new proposal, JD Health, one of the leading digital health-care platforms in China, told the publication that its AI features are currently used only to match patients with doctors and help doctors increase productivity. Medlinker, a Chinese internet startup that announced an AI product in May, responded that the product, called MedGPT, is still in internal testing and hasn’t been used in any external services. 

One more thing

NBA star James Harden was having a lot of fun during a recent trip to China. When Harden promoted his new wine brand on the Douyin livestream e-commerce channel of Chinese influencer Crazy Young Brother, he was shocked that the first batch of 10,000 bottles (sold in bundles of two for $60) sold out in only 14 seconds. After a second batch of 6,000 bottles also sold out in seconds, Harden was so excited that he did a cartwheel in the back of the room.

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