Department of Justice
Image: Ryan J. Reilly / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Feds seize $112 million connected to cryptocurrency ‘pig butchering’ scams

The Justice Department said Monday that it seized nearly $112 million worth of cryptocurrency connected to investment scams after warrants were obtained in Arizona, California and Idaho.

The seizures are part of a larger effort to address confidence schemes known colloquially as “pig butchering,” in which scammers develop long-term relationships with victims online before convincing them to invest in fraudulent cryptocurrency trading platforms.

The department did not name any specific people, companies, or platforms connected to the seized funds but said the FBI’s office in Phoenix is still investigating the case. The funds were in six digital currency accounts, the DOJ’s announcement said.

The accounts were used to launder the proceeds of the confidence scams, officials said.

“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite.

“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.”

The FBI said last year that pig butchering schemes and other cryptocurrency fraud accounted for $2.57 billion worth of losses for 2022, a 183% increase from 2021.

The pig butchering schemes take a variety of forms, with some starting through purported romantic entanglements and others presented as sound business opportunities. Some scammers spend months speaking with victims before floating potential investments.

Victims are typically directed to platforms that look legitimate but are controlled by attackers. Some scams have even allowed victims to take money out after investing to get them to put more money on the platform.

The Justice Department noted that once a larger investment is made, the scammers typically lock victims out of their accounts, demanding further investment in exchange for resumed access.

“Financial fraud schemes like these demonstrate the great lengths criminals will take to swindle innocent victims out of their money,” said Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “We continue to see these schemes evolve and provide new avenues for criminals to exploit.”

Just the latest bust

Several law enforcement agencies around the world have taken steps toward disrupting pig butchering scams this year.

Europol announced in January that international police arrested scammers selling fake cryptocurrency in Europe, Australia, and Canada — with the victims losing over €2 million.

During a cross-border investigation launched in June 2022, police arrested 14 suspects in Serbia and one in Germany. More than 260 other suspects, including people in Bulgaria and Cyprus, have been questioned and some are awaiting prosecution.

The average victim of cryptocurrency scams loses almost $122,000, according to the FBI. About two-thirds of victims are women ages 25 to 40. One man lost $1 million in a pig butchering scam involving hackers pretending to be an old co-worker.

In November, the Justice Department seized seven web domains responsible for $10 million in victim losses. In July, scammers used fraudulent cryptocurrency investment apps to steal an estimated $42.7 million from at least 244 victims.

Several reports have highlighted how pig butchering operations have become increasingly professionalized in parts of Southeast Asia in recent years — often trapping migrants from China in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam in slave-like conditions and forcing them to conduct the scams.

Scammers were even able to get two fraudulent apps onto the app stores run by both Google and Apple that allowed them to push users into making fake cryptocurrency investments.

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Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig

is a Breaking News Reporter at Recorded Future News. Jonathan has worked across the globe as a journalist since 2014. Before moving back to New York City, he worked for news outlets in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia. He previously covered cybersecurity at ZDNet and TechRepublic.