When Anne* found herself suddenly single and looking for a partner last year, her friends encouraged her to “put herself out there” with online dating.
To Anne’s surprise, she was matched with quite a few men, and not all of them seemed like the usual sleazy types.
“There were about four of them I was chatting with. They seemed business-oriented, mature, and just like gentlemen really, not so interested in sex,” she said.
They all had another thing in common, Anne said.
They all seemed very interested in cryptocurrency trading.
Anne now believes each of these men was a scammer.
But it was only one of them that would lead to her downfall.
“Looking back, it seemed like it was almost inevitable. I was just unlucky that the most articulate one was linked to me,” Anne said.
Brutal term for a brutal scam
He told Anne his name was Carlos*.
His family was Spanish but he was living in Sydney where he ran an importing and exporting business.
Soon Anne and Carlos were chatting on WhatsApp every day, sharing lots of personal messages about their lives.
Carlos would send photos of himself, what he was eating, and his outings with friends.
He was a persona, most likely created by multiple scammers working together in shifts from somewhere in Asia.
The scammers took their lines from written scripts specifically designed to manipulate the vulnerable and extract as much cash as possible from their victims.
Later, Anne would find that she had fallen for a new type of scam, called “pig butchering”.
The brutal term was coined in China, where the scams appear to have originated, with victims typically approached over WeChat.
More recently, pig butchering scams have spread to target victims in Australia and other western countries.
Australian cybercrime expert Simon Smith, from the Online Crime Action Centre, said he had worked with many local victims of pig butchering scams, with some losing up to $850,000.
“They are very elaborate and relentless, the scammers keep going until they have taken their victim’s last cent, and then some,” Smith said.
Anne said it never occurred to her that Carlos could be a scammer operating from overseas.
His Tinder profile, which tracks a user’s location, appeared to show he lived just 17 kilometres away from her in Sydney.
His phone number on WhatsApp also looked to be Australian.
Anne and Carlos arranged to meet up in person several times, but the meetings kept getting cancelled.
Anne said she felt nervous meeting a stranger in person anyway, because of warnings from friends about her personal safety.
“I thought it might be better to start off (a relationship) on my phone,” she said.
“It was only later that I realised I wasn’t safe on my phone in my own home at all.”
Fattened up for slaughter
Carlos first mentioned cryptocurrency to Anne about a week after they met, saying a friend had taught him how to trade.
With his encouragement, Anne set up an account with an online cryptocurrency exchange.
Carlos then directed her to transfer the cryptocurrency she bought to an account on another website.
Anne first put $1000 into the account with the website, before withdrawing it to test the funds would be returned to her.
Anne then transferred $3000 worth of cryptocurrency to the same account, before withdrawing $1000 in profits.
These initial transactions gave her a growing confidence.
When Anne had questions about her investment, Carlos would direct her to contact the website’s “customer service”.
What Anne didn’t realise was that the scammers were in control of the website, along with its customer service.
Over the next few weeks, Anne’s “profits” were appearing to build up fast.
“I remember one day he showed me I had $15,000 in profits,” Anne said.
Unknowingly, Anne was being fattened up, ready for the slaughter.
All up, she had put $46,000 – almost all of her life savings – into the “investment”.
When Anne tried to withdraw the profits she was told she needed to pay $20,000 in “tax” before she could access the money.
“I couldn’t withdraw until I put more money in, and that was pretty much a big red flag to me,” Anne said.
While Anne now suspected that she had been scammed, it wasn’t until she called Carlos’ number that she knew for sure.
“At first he didn’t answer, but then he called back,” she said.
“I heard his voice, and he barely knew English. I was like, ‘Oh my god, give me my money back.’
“He still stuck to the script, saying I had to pay the $20,000 tax to get my money back.”
Anne said the scam had a devastating impact on not only her finances but also her mental health.
“I felt so stupid and shameful about this whole thing,” she said.
“I’m so stressed all the time, it has really put me in a really bad mental state.
“I used to be very outgoing, but even my friends have no idea the level of damage this has done to me.”
Anne said she felt let down by the companies that gave the scammers a platform to orchestrate their crimes, including Tinder and her bank ANZ.
When contacted by 9news.com.au, Tinder did not answer questions about whether it had heard of its location trackers being manipulated by scammers.
A Tinder spokesperson said the company had a “zero tolerance” for romance scammers.
“We are constantly investing in ways to keep members safe while they’re using Tinder – including a robust suite of safety features and in-app safety education, fraud detection technology, and working directly with law enforcement when needed,” the spokesperson said.
Anne said when she contacted ANZ, the bank originally informed her she would be unable to get any of her money back.
However, after she made a report to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA), the bank offered her $1000 as a “goodwill” gesture.
A spokesperson for ANZ said AFCA was reviewing the case and the bank would continue to work with AFCA during the process.
“ANZ considers each case on its merits,” the spokesperson said.
“We will reimburse our customers for any unauthorised transactions on their account, provided they didn’t contribute to the loss.”
Preying on the vulnerable
This year to October, Australians lost more than $322 million in investment scams, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch.
Dating and romance scams account for $35 million in losses during the same period.
Smith said dating websites and apps were traditionally rife with scammers, who often used information provided by their victims on their profiles to psychologically manipulate them.
“These scams prey on the vulnerable and the scripts the scammers follow are designed to exploit any weaknesses,” Smith said.
“For example, if you are a bit overweight, they will compliment you and say you look really good in that photo – it builds their victims’ confidence and trust.
“Pig butchering scams take more than just money – they are really cruel and that’s partly where the name comes from I think.”
Smith said he had seen people lose their partners, homes and all of their superannuation to the scams.
“It is an epidemic, and some people become suicidal because of it,” he said.
Smith said there was often very little anyone could do to recover money once it was lost in a cryptocurrency scam, other than try to negotiate a payment with their banks if there had been some failing on their part.
“Australia has a massive problem with law enforcement and cybercrime, they don’t actually grab it by the neck properly, or have the thirst to be able to stop it,” Smith said.
“Most people just walk away because it’s too hard.”
Smith’s tips for you can avoid falling victim to romance or investment scams include:
- Talk to friends and family about your experiences to get another perspective. Confiding in someone else could help prevent or minimise any losses.
- Be wary of crypto, which has always been associated with scams and criminal activity, despite the digital currency becoming more mainstream in recent years.
- If something doesn’t sound normal then it could be a scam. For instance, why would you be asked to pay your tax through crypto, or why would you have to use gift cards?
- When it comes to relationships, understand that you really don’t know anyone at all until you physically meet them in person.
*Names have been changed.