Tens of thousands of people from across Asia have been coerced into participating in well-organized schemes that defraud people in the U.S. and around the world out of millions of dollars. Cezary Podkul’s investigation takes us deep into both sides of the operation: He tells the harrowing account of Fan, a young man from China, lured by a phony ad, taken captive and sent to a Cambodian scam compound in Sihanoukville, and forced to engage in cybercrime. Podkul also shares the devastating story of Yuen, a man living near San Francisco, who ultimately lost $1 million — more than he and his wife had saved over 30 years — in a scam that began with a seemingly harmless WhatsApp message from a stranger named Jessica.

The most widely used technique among these operations is known as pig butchering, an allusion to the practice of fattening up a hog before slaughtering it. The approach combines some time-tested elements of fraud — such as gaining trust, in the manner of a Ponzi scheme, by making it easy for marks to extract cash at first — with elements unique to the internet era.

Some Americans have lost huge sums. An entrepreneur in California said she was swindled out of $2 million and unwittingly facilitated an additional $1 million in losses by convincing her friends to join her in what seemed like a surefire investment. A hospital technician in Houston enticed her friends and colleagues to join her in a similar scheme, costing the group $110,000. An accountant in Connecticut is no longer preparing for retirement after watching $180,000 vanish in two separate swindles. They were among more than two dozen scam victims from seven countries interviewed by ProPublica.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.