Yesterday, out of the blue, I got a text message from an unknown number. "Hello, I'm Freya, do you remember me?" I knew instantly the message was a scam. I've gotten dozens of these over the past two years, not just on text but also WhatsApp. It's an entreé to a romance and cryptocurrency scam, often now called the "pig butcher" scam, where someone--often in a developing country in Africa or Asia--will pretend to be someone, usually a beautiful woman, befriend the mark and pretend to fall in love with them, and then convince them to download an "investment" app to make buko cash in cryptocurrency. You can read about these scams, and why the scammers initiate contact by pretending to have texted someone else, here. Despite knowing this was a con, I played along with "Freya" for a couple of messages. I was curious whether "she" would send a photo of herself, and whether it would turn out to be a variation of the same picture I've seen literally dozens of times. Sure enough, she did. The picture that "Freya" sent me is in the header of this article. Does she look familiar to you?
Despite the light-hearted title of this article, pig butchering is deadly serious business, and its connections to global criminal rackets are dark and disturbing. The rise of cryptocurrency--which is itself a scam from start to finish--opened up a whole new universe of grift in the mid- to late-2010s, and the racket was supercharged by the coronavirus pandemic. Romance scams have been around for a long time and gained a lot of their modern features in the early days of the internet in the 1990s and early 2000s. The economic chaos of Russia in that period, emerging from the post-Communist order but without a lot of political stability, made that country and especially St. Petersburg a global hub for web-based scams. Among scambaiters, a curious breed of digital vigilantes I'll discuss in a moment, romance scammers were colloquially nicknamed "Ludmillas" because so many pretended to be Russians. It's changed now, and Asia is the epicenter of the pig butchering industry. Since the pandemic, criminal syndicates in Southeast Asia have hit on the monstrous idea of combining web-based and cryptocurrency scams with human trafficking. Racketeers bait people, often young men, into fake job offers, then take them literally as slaves to run scams. ProPublica recently did an exposé on this form of crime, here. I wouldn't be surprised if the "Freya" who messaged me was one of these slaves. If he is, there's not much I can do about it, unfortunately.
I was curious about the picture the scammer would send me because I've seen it, or a variation of it, numerous times before. Above is a screenshot of the profile of a friend request I received on LinkedIn about a year ago. It may not literally be the same woman as the "Freya" bait picture, but the type is absolutely the same: highly sexualized, doe-like eyes, Asian or perhaps mixed race, almost resembling a sort of human doll if one were designed by an AI trying to appeal to the largest number of hetero white men in Western countries as possible. (It goes without saying that there is a gender reversed version of the scam that targets women with men's pictures as well, but men seem to be the preferred target). These are undoubtedly real women. The one I encountered on LinkedIn is probably a model. No real human being would choose a lingerie shot as her professional photo on LinkedIn. "Freya's" photo was probably stolen from Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Whoever she is, the scammers love her. There's a site called socialcatfish.com where you can upload and reverse-image search pictures that purported online romantic partners send you. I didn't pay the fee to unlock the report, but when I ran "Freya" through the database it said it had more than 40 hits from various dating and social media profiles. The real-life woman whose picture this is probably knows it's being used in this way, but there's nothing she can do about it, either.
The Asian lingerie model whose pictures were lifted for that LinkedIn scammer is but one of many. Recently, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) ran a podcast series called Love, Janessa, profiling the real life woman, known as "Janessa Brazil," whose photos are believed to be the most common pictures used by romance scammers the world over. The unwitting appropriation of her photos by scam syndicates has made life hell for the real Janessa Brazil, who is constantly being contacted by victims who somehow think she had something to do with their victimization or that she owes them some sort of retribution. Love, Janessa makes clear that all kinds of people fall for pig butcher scams. It has little to do with intelligence, savviness or gullibility. It has everything to do with vulnerability.
I have long been fascinated by the subject of scams and deception. If you go to my YouTube channel you'll see I've done several videos, some very in-depth, on the history and pathology of scams and con games, such as the nonexistent treasure on Oak Island--a scam probably dating from the 1850s which has taken on a life of its own in the modern era--and also the infamous grift, which I call the tools cult, associated with the multilevel marketing company Amway, itself a scam. Scams are fascinating because they nest inside of each other like Chinese boxes, and they involve storytelling, playacting and pop psychology in order to ensnare their victims and keep them coming back for more. Scams exploit human weaknesses in their basest form: greed, usually, but often loneliness, longing and the desire to be loved. I can guarantee that if I told "Freya" I had just gone through a divorce or was grieving the loss of a wife, it'd be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Scammers now operate from elaborate scripts that are often put together by criminals with a keen understanding of human psychology. The scripts may appear crude to the victims, especially if and when they proceed from some sort of misunderstanding or stereotyping of cultural traits, but they're also trained to quickly shepherd the mark past any potential non-sequiturs or red flags. If I was a real mark and played the scammer's game, "Freya" would try to take me for tens of thousands of dollars, most likely in fradulent crypto investments.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, in comparatively the infancy of the internet, my interest in understanding the pathology of scams and con games led me to participate briefly in the subculture known as scambaiting. These are ordinary people, most in Western countries, who pretend to be marks of cyber-scammers, particularly 419 advance-fee fraud scammers, now most commonly known as the "Nigerian prince" emails. The idea of scambaiting is to string along the scammer and waste their time as much as possible. I'm not sure it works, but it was an interesting experiment. The world of online scams has changed a lot since the late 2000s, though. As with everything else in cyberspace, it's gotten meaner, uglier, darker and more cut-throat and ruthless.
I am of Generation X, the last generation that did not grow up with the internet and online interaction basically from birth; we first went online in our late adolescence or early adulthood. I remember, in the early 1990s, how amazed and optimistic we were all supposed to be at how the Internet (you used to capitalize it back then) was supposed to make human society more enlightened, democratic and progressive. It seems to have had the opposite effect. It's made humanity greedier, lonelier, stupider and more prone to follow authoritarian and fascist leaders. The pig butcher scam is merely one symptom of how capitalism, dishonesty and technology have metastasized into a cancer that threatens all life on this planet. The climate crisis and rising fascism, the twin evils I write about frequently on this blog, are strains of the same disease. In the early 1990s the idea of a beautiful waifish stranger appearing spontaneously on your telephone to fall in love with you and sell you fake money would be the most implausible science fiction. Now, unfortunately, it's part of our shared reality.
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