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'Pig-butchering': The online scam that's raked in $75 billion and counting

Messages that Shreya Datta, a tech professional who was a victim of an online scam known as "pig butchering," exchanged with a person who would turn out to be a scammer. (Bastien Inzarrualde/AFP via Getty Images)
Messages that Shreya Datta, a tech professional who was a victim of an online scam known as "pig butchering," exchanged with a person who would turn out to be a scammer. (Bastien Inzarrualde/AFP via Getty Images)

The ‘pig-butchering scam.’

It’s a criminal industry that targets the vulnerable, engages in human trafficking, and exploits weaknesses in digital currency.

How does it work?

Today, On Point: The online scam that’s raked in $75 billion and counting.

Guests

Alvin Camba, assistant professor at the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Faculty affiliate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Zeke Faux, investigative reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. Author of “Number Go Up: Inside Crypto’s Wild Rise and Staggering Fall.

Also Featured

Neo Lu, former hostage in Myanmar scam operation.

Brian Bruce, chief of operations for Global Anti Scam Organization and former victim of online scam.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.

And a few weeks ago, our live broadcast got off to its normal start.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And we have arrived at episode four of our special series…

CHAKRABARTI: The show’s going well. Except for one thing. One of our main guests, professor Alvin Camba, was nowhere to be found. On Point director Eileen Imada was keeping me updated in my headphones. And unfortunately, there’s no recording of that; because you’d be impressed with her cool.

We’re moving forward. I’m introducing the guests…

CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: And today, we’re taking a look at the promise of nickel, power and prosperity in Indonesia. (BIG BREATH)

CHAKRABARTI: That big breath there is the tiny gap where Eileen tell me, still no Alvin Camba, go to the other guest.

CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: I’d like to bring Cullen Hendrix into the conversation. He’s senior fellow…

CHAKRABARTI: The show’s out of the gates. That’s what you hear. But what you don’t hear or see is the team in the control room.

They are scrambling to find Professor Camba, as the show rolls on.

CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: So Cullen, hang on here for just a second.

CHAKRABARTI: They call him half a dozen times. On every phone number we have for him. In the past, we’ve even called people’s neighbors, or office mates to help find them.

MARI PANGESTU: We are not destroying the environment in the process.

CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: That’s Mari Pangestu, she’s Indonesia’s former trade minister.

CHAKRABARTI: They send emails. Texts.

CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: Cullen, we’ve just got about 15 seconds left. 

CHAKRABARTI: They call every number we have for Professor Camba again. All the way to the end of the broadcast.

CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: We’ll come back to the U.S. to see if we can meet those clean energy goals. This is On Point.

CHAKRABARTI: And then, the show’s over. Still no Professor Alvin Camba.

It’s live radio. Stuff like this happens. You’ve gotta roll with it. So when guests go missing, we’re not that concerned about the show. We get worried about the wellbeing of our guest.

Turns out, that concern was warranted. A couple of hours later, Professor Camba resurfaced. He sent a text to On Point Producer Daniel Ackerman. Professor Camba was okay, thankfully. But not entirely okay.

DANIEL ACKERMAN [Reading]: I was occupied for law enforcement reasons the whole of yesterday. I am being harassed online by some criminal organizations and it’s related to my other research on Chinese online gambling and scam compounds.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Daniel, reading parts of the text.

ACKERMAN [Reading]: The harassment has been happening for months…Yesterday, I was with Domestic and International law enforcement agencies. The whole day was me coming in with my computer to the field office so they can get the data.

CHAKRABARTI: Scam compounds, Chinese organized crime, international law enforcement. Despite all that, Alvin Camba is able to join us today. He’s assistant professor at the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Professor Camba, I am so very grateful that you’re here with us today. Welcome.

ALVIN CAMBA: Oh, hi Meghna. How are you?

CHAKRABARTI: I’m well. So I understand that the harassment you have been experiencing from purportedly Chinese organized crime syndicates is the object of an ongoing international investigation.

It’s likely that you can’t go into a ton of detail. I appreciate that. But as much as you, can you tell us a little bit about when this harassment began, I understand one of the points that you look back on was a phone call or series of phone calls you had made with a close family member?

CAMBA: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: How much can you tell us about that? Yeah, go ahead.

CAMBA: Okay. So just for a background, I’ve been like researching this topic since 2018 when any of these so-called companies were online gambling firms operating in the Philippines, and then eventually many of these companies, as many have transitioned into scam compounds since the pandemic.

And then in the Philippine context, I’ve been involved with testifying in the Philippine Senate a couple of times, and this involvement with the Philippine Senate and sort of other involvements with other agencies, with other organizations. Eventually led to a series of very suspicious incidences when it comes to like my personal life slash when it comes to, I know, like doing research.

So I think the earliest that this occurred was like in December when I was doing fieldwork in Indonesia. I couldn’t access many of my schools, like what they call this, like websites, whether it’s like. Whether it’s like Concur or it’s like, what they call the Watermark, like, website, the Watermark website is what we use for midterm evaluations.

And of course, I shrug it off. I’m like, okay I’m in Indonesia. It happens, internet, et cetera. Eventually I realized that wasn’t really the case. The most creepy, the creepiest like experience I’ve had was when in January I started to have conversations with my father, supposedly. Same phone number, same name, same voice, same, I would say, accent.

And then we started to talk about like my research on like scam compounds, online gambling, triads and it’s pretty normal for my dad and I to have this phone call over like WhatsApp, because this is what we do all the time. He just recovered from like the hospital because he was having some sort of like heart issues.

And then we talk about research all the time because we never really had a close relationship about anything else. And maybe I shouldn’t say that online, but that’s actually true. We talk about research all the time, whether it’s about critical resources, U.S.-China geopolitical relationship, cement and steel, climate change.

This time we spoke about my research, and we got into it quite a bit, including names of politicians in the Philippines, Malaysia and Cambodia being involved, the sort of like the data sets I was using. Fast forward, I don’t know, four or five phone calls. A series of like 15-to-20-minute phone calls, fast forward three weeks, four weeks later.

My aunt called me and my aunt is my dad’s spouse. Because my mom passed away when I was like 18. Then my aunt said, your dad’s been worried. You haven’t been able to like, talk to him. And then I was like, what do you mean? We’ve been talking quite a bit.

And then she was like, no, we’ve sent you emails, et cetera. We couldn’t access his Philippine phone number. And then their telecommunications company did not know what was happening. And then, we just wanted to let you know that he lost his phone number.

And I’m like, what do you mean? Oh my God. I’ve been actually talking to somebody like him. He sounded like him. I even had this like very short video call with him and it looked like him. So yeah, that was like the creepiest thing that happened.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Camba, can I just step in here very gently for a moment?

Forgive me. I literally have been whispering, Oh my God, as I’m hearing this story.

CAMBA: Yeah, it’s fine.

CHAKRABARTI: So forgive me, but I just want to, for listeners who don’t know some of this background, I promise you that when it comes to online gambling, scam compounds, cryptocurrency, and the changes after COVID. It all sums to this major international problem called pig-butchering, which we will talk about in detail in a little bit.

So folks have a little bit of background about where we’re moving with this conversation. But I also just want to reiterate what you just said. So this is an area of research for you because of the activities that are going on in the Philippines and other places in Asia. You’re doing research on this.

You think you’re making, you thought you were making a series of calls to your dad. The voice on the other end, as you said, it’s the right number, it sounds like him, has the right accent, you even had a video call, looked like him, but then your actual dad or your aunt says, your dad hasn’t heard from you.

His phone number isn’t working. So first of all, that’s terrifying. Second of all, who were you talking to then?

CAMBA: I have no idea. They’re like, supposedly, there are many examples where this actually happened to other people. There was a recent example in Hong Kong, there was this like, he works for a financial company.

Then he had a Zoom call with the board of the company. And then in the Zoom call, these people look like the board, they sounded like the board, and they acted like people in the board. And people in the board told him to transfer I don’t know, $50 million, $100 million dollars. And then he was like, sure.

These are my bosses. It turns out it wasn’t the board members. So there’s people that have access to technologies where they can change their faces, they can change their accents. People have been making developments on many of the select frontiers.

CHAKRABARTI: So, in your case, whoever was in contact with you wanted to know more about your research and you had.

CAMBA: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: And also, you where you had mentioned that you had been locked out of some of your university’s websites when you were doing different, a whole different category of research in Indonesia. As far as we understand though, the reason why you had to miss our show that day a while ago was because the harassment.

Allegedly from these Chinese organized crime groups and how they’re harassing you has even followed you on to U.S. soil. Is that correct, Professor Camba?

CAMBA: So they’re mostly, all of the harassment is like online in nature. I’ve just, the reason why, the reason I missed the show, it was because I had to come in for a series of, I had to come in for a series of meetings and I had to bring my computers. Because they had to be scrubbed when it comes to like potential like malware. And potentially I’m not like illiterate when it comes to like computers.

I know a little bit of programming myself and I know how cryptocurrency works. I know how blockchain analysis works as well, but obviously more expertise is needed. And then they simply have to like, I have access to my computers when it comes to law enforcement, which I’m just going to keep it general. Simply because I can’t really name this people slash organizations that I’m working with online.

Yeah, they’re mostly online. It just affects like parts of my life. And there are like other forms of like smaller levels of harassment that actually has happened. Sorry, I’m going to, what was your question again?

CHAKRABARTI: Oh no. That’s okay. You clarified that, you gave a perfect answer for that question.

Okay. But the point is that the harassment is significant enough that, as you said, now there’s domestic and international law enforcement involved.

So Professor Camba, first of all, once again, very grateful that you could come back to the show today. We have to take a very quick break and when we come back, we’re going to talk more about exactly what it is you’re researching and get a deeper understanding of what this multi billion, tens of billions of dollars in scamming that’s called pig butchering.

What it is, what it’s all about, who’s doing it, and who’s being terribly exploited in the process. All of that when we come back. This is On Point.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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