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.