LOS ANGELES – The Department of Justice announced today that it has seized virtual currency worth an estimated $112 million linked to cryptocurrency investment scams commonly called “pig butchering.”
Seizure warrants for six virtual currency accounts were authorized by judges in Los Angeles, the District of Arizona, and the District of Idaho. In the Los Angeles matter, a United States magistrate judge authorized the seizure of an account containing approximately $66.4 million in various cryptocurrencies after finding probable cause that the funds were derived from wire fraud schemes.
According to court documents, the six virtual currency accounts were used to launder proceeds of various cryptocurrency confidence scams. In these schemes, fraudsters cultivated long-term, online relationships with victims, eventually enticing them to make investments in fraudulent cryptocurrency trading platforms. In reality, the funds sent by victims for these purported investments were instead funneled to cryptocurrency addresses and accounts controlled by scammers and their co-conspirators.
“The victims in Pig Butchering schemes are referred to as ‘pigs’ by the scammers because the scammers will use elaborate storylines to ‘fatten up’ victims into believing they are in a romantic or otherwise close personal relationship,” according to the affidavit in support of the Los Angeles seizure warrant. “Once the victim places enough trust in the scammer, the scammer brings the victim into a cryptocurrency investment scheme.”
The scammer attempts to create the appearance of legitimacy by fabricating websites or mobile apps to display a bogus investment portfolio with large returns, the affidavit states. In relation to the Los Angeles-based account seizure, the FBI has identified at least 10 victims who were unable to withdraw funds they had invested, with the seized account containing some funds from all 10 victims.
Authorities executed the Los Angeles seizure warrant in December and received the last transfer of cryptocurrency on March 21.
“Using the methods of traditional con artists, high-tech fraudsters have taken advantage of the publicity and hype surrounding cryptocurrency to encourage an untold number of Americans to invest in get-rich-quick schemes,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “We all know that investment scams are not new, but the use of digital currency to commit fraud presents new challenges to victims and to law enforcement trying to recover lost funds – which likely total billions of dollars in the so-called ‘pig butchering’ schemes. The major seizures announced today show that law enforcement is confronting the new challenges and taking strong measures to address this fraud, but the public should be extremely wary of investment scams that use cryptocurrency and promise unrealistic returns.”
The affidavit in the Los Angeles seizure warrant discussed a series of cryptocurrency investment scams, one of which targeted a professional woman who was contacted on LinkedIn by a man who used the name “Fei Kuang.” After learning that the victim already had a small cryptocurrency account, “Fei Kuang” offered to help the victim, eventually convincing her to invest more money and to move her funds to another, presumably fraudulent, trading exchange. When she tried to withdraw her funds, she was told she had to pay a 20% in “taxes.” When the trading platform continued to demand more money, the woman realized she was the victim of a scam which cost her approximately $2.5 million.
“Transnational criminal organizations are combining confidence scams with technological savvy to swindle Americans out of their hard-earned funds,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “These particularly vicious frauds – where scammers carefully cultivate relationships with their victims over time – have devastated families and cost individuals their life savings. Now that we have seized this virtual currency, we will seek to swiftly return it to victims. In addition to our tireless efforts to disrupt these schemes, we must also work to raise public awareness and help inform potential victims: be wary of people you meet online; seriously question investment advice, especially about cryptocurrency, from people you have not met in person; and remember, investments that seem too good to be true, usually are.”
In 2022, investment fraud caused the highest losses of any scam reported by the public to the FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center (IC3), totaling $3.31 billion. Frauds involving cryptocurrency, including pig butchering, represented most of these scams, increasing 183% from 2021 to $2.57 billion in reported losses last year.
According to the FBI, the highest number of reports came from victims between the ages of 30 and 49. In these schemes, often called “Sha Zhu Pan,” a Chinese phrase that loosely translates to “pig butchering,” scammers often target their victims through social networking and online communications platforms, dating websites, and phone calls and text messages that are meant to appear to have been misdialed. After gaining the trust of their victims – sometimes over a period of months – scammers eventually introduce the idea of trading in cryptocurrency. They then direct victims to cryptocurrency investment platforms or to co-conspirators posing as investment advisors or customer service representatives. Scammers control websites that are built to look like legitimate trading platforms, applications that victims download onto their phones, or malicious smart contracts accessed through cryptocurrency wallet software.
Once victims make an initial “investment,” the platforms purport to show substantial gains. Sometimes, victims are even allowed to withdraw some of these initial gains to further engender trust in the scheme. It is not until a large investment is made that victims find that they are unable to withdraw their funds.
Even when a victim is denied access to their funds, the fraud is often not yet over. Scammers request additional investments, taxes or fees, promising that these payments will allow victims access to their accounts. These scam operations often continue to steal from their victims and do not stop until they have deprived victims of any remaining savings.
“Depriving scam organizations of their ill-gotten gains is an important part of our strategy to combat these ruthless schemes,” said Director Eun Young Choi of the Criminal Division’s National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (NCET). “We will continue to use all tools at our disposal to disrupt and deter cryptocurrency confidence schemes, including by following the money on the blockchain and seizing cryptocurrency to return funds to victims, and by targeting and taking down online infrastructure used by the scammers. Today’s announcements also demonstrate the value of early notification by victims to law enforcement; we thank those victims who came forward to notify the FBI when they were targeted by this scheme.”
The FBI Phoenix Division is investigating the matter that resulted in seizures announced today.
Assistant United States Attorney Daniel Boyle of the Asset Forfeiture and Recovery Section is handling the Los Angeles case. The other cases are being handled by the District of Arizona and the District of Idaho. The NCET and the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section provided substantial assistance and coordination.
If you or someone you know is a victim, visit www.fbi.gov/cryptoguard, contact your local FBI field office (the Los Angeles Field Office can be reached at 310-477-6565), call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it to IC3.gov. In your complaint, please reference, “Pig Butchering PSA.” Include as much information as possible in your complaint including names of investment platforms, cryptocurrency addresses and transaction hashes, bank account information, and names and contact information of suspected scammers. Maintain copies of all communications with scammers and records of financial transactions.