A 271,000-word WhatsApp conversation between a Bay Area man and his scammer reveals the heartbreaking mechanics of a new breed of investment racket. Experts believe the global losses are in the billions.
The message to Cy’s WhatsApp came out of the blue.
“Jessica” told him she’d found his number in her phone contacts and was reaching out because she thought they might be old colleagues. Cy, a 52-year-old man who lives in the Bay Area, didn’t remember her, but she was kind, cordial and engaging. She sent pictures of what she was eating. They discussed their mutual love of sushi, and Cy enjoyed the conversation enough to follow up with her the next day.
Soon, the text exchanges moved from the anodyne to the personal. Cy told Jessica about his struggles to support his family, about his ailing father and how the decision to send his father to hospice care weighed on him.
That was October 2021. By December, Cy had been conned out of more than $1 million dollars — over a quarter of it, borrowed money. His finances were in ruins. Cy, who asked Forbes to identify him by that pseudonym, had been “pig butchered.”
Pig butchering is a relatively new long-game financial con in which “pigs,” or targets, are “butchered” by people who convince them to invest ever-larger sums in purported cryptocurrency-fueled trading platforms. The fake platforms are designed to look real, and make the victims believe that their investments are making fantastic returns — until their scammer, and all the money they believe they’ve invested, disappears.
Victims often lose significant sums, and the practice is so lucrative that it’s being scaled up and carried out en masse in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. So far, American law enforcement officials at both the federal and local level have made little headway in recovering stolen funds or catching the perpetrators.
These scams are carried out “on a large scale, on an industrial scale — like they’re doing fraud in a factory.”
Complicating law enforcement efforts is the issue of human trafficking. Human rights advocates say many of the scammers are victims themselves, people lured to countries across southeast Asia by the prospect of a better-paying job and then forced to run pig butchering scams, sometimes at the threat of violence. Often, their passports and cellphones are seized upon arrival.
These scams are carried out “on a large scale, on an industrial scale — like they’re doing fraud in a factory,” Jan Santiago, the deputy director of advocacy group Global Anti-Scam Organization, told Forbes. He estimates that the global losses are in the billions.
Cy lost more than $1 million dollars to such a scam. The manipulation played out via a months-long, heartbreaking WhatsApp conversation that runs more 271,000 words — 480 single-spaced pages.
The transcript, which Cy shared with Forbes, reveals how Jessica turned his fears and insecurities to her advantage. Cy, with an ailing father, an overworked wife, and a daughter soon entering college, found Jessica’s seemingly quick and easy financial gains alluring. These details about his private life would soon become the wedge that Jessica drove between Cy and his money, relentlessly, for weeks on end. At every juncture, she egged him on to spend more.
This is the story of how one scammer ruined a man’s life.
“I DON’T WANT YOU TO WORK SO HARD”
As Cy got to know Jessica, he was increasingly intrigued by claims that she had been making boatloads of cash by trading on MetaTrader, an app available on Apple’s App Store. Jessica told him that she’d been getting insider gold trading tips from a mysterious uncle in Hong Kong, the same place where Cy’s parents were from.
In late October, Jessica texted Cy just after 10 a.m. California time: “Uncle’s call is just to tell me the news of the evening,” she said, explaining that she had new insider information they could both use to make a profit. She encouraged Cy to run a simulated trade: “No money is needed.”
Within minutes, Jessica walked Cy through the process, step-by-step, in an authoritative tone.
“If you want to make money, just listen to me,” she wrote. She told him to download the brokerage app MetaTrader 5 to his iPhone and gave him some simple instructions. The interface on his phone showed two buttons: Red was to “buy down,” and blue was to “buy up.”
Cy lost money in the simulation, but Jessica reassured him, insisting she had turned a $5 million investment into $10 million with similar insider information.
The following evening, Cy ran another simulated trade in which he appeared to earn $28,000, simply by doing exactly what Jessica told him to. He remained wary, but less so. Jessica encouraged him to invest $10,000, the minimum, she claimed, noting that the profits could help his family.
The next day, Cy texted Jessica with a proposal. He’d put up $5,000 if she would put up the other $5,000, and he would reimburse her after a successful trade. She rejected the idea.
They went back and forth like this for a while, but in the end Cy told Jessica that while he was worried “that I will get cheated,” he agreed to put up the $10,000. “I don’t think men should be like this, don’t do it if you are worried,” she told him.
With Jessica’s help, Cy wired $10,000 to Coinbase. A few days later, Cy confided in Jessica again.
After some hiccups with setting up his new Coinbase account, Jessica told Cy to move his money to Crypto.com instead and instructed him to buy $10,000 worth of Ethereum. (Later on she would tell him to primarily buy a stablecoin, USDT, also known as “Tether.”) This would, in turn, be used to buy gold futures through MetaTrader’s red-blue trading interface, she told him.
On October 27, with Cy’s real money now on the line, Jessica texted with “news” from “Uncle.”
Following her instructions to the letter, and sending her screenshots at each step of the way, Cy executed a trade, which appeared to nearly double his money. Cy didn’t completely understand what was happening — he thought he was buying gold futures — but he dutifully followed along, following her explicit instructions.
“I was shaking like crazy because of course I still had doubts,” Cy told Forbes over lunch at a Bay Area cafe. He didn’t touch his food. Sometimes, he looked on the verge of tears.
“I was taking a little bit of risk to better my family’s life and my siblings and I was trying to surprise my family,” he said. “My mission was trying to reduce the hours my wife was working and I was hoping I can help the standard of living for my siblings.”
Now convinced that this was a real thing, Cy was hooked.
“Let me transfer an additional $20k for tomorrow,” he wrote to Jessica on October 27 — approximately three weeks after her very first communication. “That’s [a] total of $30k. Then Monday add more. I never dealt with this much money before so it’s a little scary.”
“I told you all the ways I make money, do you doubt me?” she said at one point, a few days later.
By this point, Cy had already put in $50,000, and thought he had made a total profit of around $13,000. He could hardly believe his good luck.
MetaTrader, which offers licenses for its software, does enable legitimate trade by actual brokerages. But, according to GASO, MetaTrader also allows licensees to use a particular plug-in, known as Virtual Dealer, which can be used by scammers to “manipulate those market prices, and simulate account balances, profits or losses. Everything looks and feels real, but it’s all a fabrication.”
In Cy’s case, the entire trading interface was a fiction. Jessica either controlled the outcomes in the app, or was feeding Cy’s information to someone else who was. He would never see his money again.
Cy told Forbes that because he downloaded MetaTrader on the App Store, he presumed it was legitimate.
“The whole platform, the app that it was on Apple with 4.7 stars, everything seemed very realistic,” he said. “It was a trading market that was going up and down, it was something that I had never seen before.”
MetaQuotes, the company behind MetaTrader, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. TradeToolsFx, which makes the Virtual Dealer plug-in, was unable to provide comment at the time of publication. Google, which hosts MetaTrader on the Play Store, did not respond to a request for comment.
Apple spokesperson Adam Dema told Forbes the company is investigating complaints about MetaTrader, and will take additional action to protect App Store users if necessary.
“IT’S A NIGHTMARE”
Pig butchering is platform agnostic: It can occur via LinkedIn, via dating apps, or even, as was the case with Cy, through a random text message. But these scams follow the same form: An innocent chat turns into investment advice. Then, at some point, the pig is fattened — the victim is tricked into spending more — and then butchered, when the scammer absconds with the cash.
Anyone can be a target. In recent weeks, Forbes spoke to 12 people, a wide cross-section of victims, including Cy: an equities trader in Texas, a graduate student in Michigan, an engineer in California, a doctor in New York. Unlike the stereotypical scam victim, many of them are highly educated and digitally savvy. But that didn’t prevent them from losing huge amounts of money: Some lost tens of thousands, others hundreds of thousands, and still others, like Cy, were tricked into parting with over $1 million. Very few have been able to get any money back.
Pig butchering scams are a cousin of older-style online romance scams, which often have smaller-scale losses. While pig butchering sometimes uses romance as a tactic, scammers can also build other types of personal or professional relationships over time in order to convince their targets to invest more money.
CipherBlade, a cryptocurrency investigative analysis firm, estimates that worldwide losses from pig butchering scams are in the “tens of billions” of U.S. dollars in 2021 alone, adding that the presumed losses are “incredibly high.” (The closest type of scam the FTC tracks is romance scams, and losses from these scams reached an all-time high of $547 million in 2021.)
“Most people who lose funds to pig butchering scams don’t recover those funds in general,” Paul Sibenik, lead case manager at CipherBlade, told Forbes. He noted that the highest single loss that he’s aware of is “$20 or $30 million,” with the average loss in the “mid-to-high six figures.”
Andrew Frey, a forensic financial analyst with the United States Secret Service in the San Francisco Field Office, told Forbes that pig butchering is now a “super scam.”
“They took that up a notch in terms of sophistication in creating these apps with the perception that people are making money,” he said, referring to fake apps and spoofed trading platforms, similar to the one that Cy was guided through.
“They’re lured with all kinds of promises… and they are offered ridiculous amounts of money.”
Many victims say they have reported their losses to their local police department, often to be told that there’s not much they can do to help, if they get a response at all. Frustrated by a seeming lack of public and forceful response from American authorities, some victims have banded together across Facebook groups and WhatsApp channels.
The largest advocacy group is a relatively new US and Singapore-based nonprofit called the Global Anti-Scam Organization. GASO has become an online clearinghouse of information: Volunteers write detailed reports of how the scams work, conduct their own independent research, connect victims to media outlets, and work closely with law enforcement to try to bring perpetrators to justice.
“The big picture is that there is this cottage industry in southeast Asia that is employing or coercing thousands, if not tens of thousands of people into doing online scams and it’s quite lucrative,” Jan Santiago, GASO’s deputy director told Forbes. Santiago, a soft-spoken 30-year-old Filipino immigrant living in Los Angeles, speaks from experience: He himself lost over $100,000 to this exact type of scam.
Eldeen Husaini Hashim, the Malaysian ambassador to Cambodia, echoed Santiago’s concerns, noting that the industrialization of pig butchering is putting a lot of young, usually Chinese-speaking people from his homeland in danger.
“They’re lured with all kinds of promises, working in customer service, or in hotels, or management, or entertainment and they are offered ridiculous amounts of money,” Hashim told Forbes. Many end up in criminal compounds. Some call the embassy for help — but getting access to a phone is rare, and many barely have any time to make a call before being found out.
“They manage to just have a few seconds — what they did was they just share location and they say: ‘help,’” he explained. “It’s a nightmare.”
“YOUR FATHER WANTS YOU TO BE BETTER”
Over the next few days, Jessica teased Cy with news of an upcoming “big market.” If he could pull together even more money, he could really cash in.
Cy began to liquidate stock, selling nearly $58,000 from his mutual fund portfolio, and then another $70,000 the following day. He used the proceeds to purchase more crypto, which he then transferred to MetaTrader to prep for the arrival of the big market.
Meanwhile, as his father’s illness worsened, Cy turned to Jessica for emotional support.
Several hours later Jessica messaged Cy with some urgent financial advice, pushing him to sell his stock.
The following morning, Jessica messaged Cy, reminding him to wire the proceeds of the sale to his cryptocurrency account.
At this point, Cy was in for nearly $200,000 of his own money, and believed that Jessica had loaned him an additional $40,000. By evening, Jessica messaged with good news: “You now have 300,000 principal,” she wrote, adding, “if possible, try to reach 500,000.”
On November 7, Jessica alerted Cy to more news from her uncle. Cy dutifully followed her instructions, and again the MetaTrader app showed that he had made money.
“Am I dreaming?” Cy wrote. “60k in less than 10 mins!”
Jessica instructed Cy to repeat the trade, seemingly earning him another $31,000. She continued to prod him to invest even more money. Cy obliged, selling off family assets on the sly. He thought he’d profited around $90,000, a nearly 40% return.
Despite his continued efforts, Jessica kept urging him to borrow money from friends and family so he would have at least $1 million to invest in the next “big market.”
The following day, Cy had a revelation. He remembered that he still had a home equity line of credit, a type of financial loan available to homeowners that uses one’s own home as collateral. He withdrew $200,000 and transferred it to his cryptocurrency wallet in preparation for the coming “big market.”
He had now put in more than $440,000 of his own money.
“So do you see that I’m working hard?” he wrote to her.
When Cy’s father passed away on November 14, Jessica was among the first people he messaged. “Can I tell you something? But do not be upset,” he wrote. “I feel like dying. I feel like nothing matters anymore.” Still, less than 20 minutes later, he asked if there was any news about that “big market.”
“YOU ARE MY ONLY HOPE”
As the days went on, and Cy grew more despondent, Jessica encouraged him to lean on her for emotional support.
When the “big market” finally arrived on November 18, Cy believed he was flush: His initial $440,000 investment had grown to $2.2 million.
But when that critical trade took place, which was supposed to bring huge profits, MetaTrader suddenly began showing his balance as negative $480,000. Cy couldn’t figure out why. Had the app crashed? Had he made a critical error?
“I lost all my money,” he messaged Jessica. “What should I do?” Jessica was quick to berate him (“If the principal is not enough, it cannot be supported to the profit point”), but also to reassure him.
Soon, Cy liquidated more of his remaining assets, desperate to claw back from his losses.
But by the following day, he tried to stave off Jessica by lying to her, claiming that his family was onto him.
Again, Jessica told Cy the best way to quickly recover losses like these was to invest more money, and she urged him to borrow more funds and continue to trade with them.
In the end, Cy managed to borrow $100,000 from a childhood friend and sold hundreds of thousands more of his own assets, all of which he promptly invested with Jessica’s guidance — an additional $600,000 on top of the $440,000 he’d already handed over.
On December 2, after investing the $600,000, Cy believed that his holdings had grown to $1.1 million, just about enough to offset his previous losses of $440,000. When he reached $1.8 million, Jessica said, she would finally teach him how to withdraw his funds.
But on December 3, after a purported trade, his MetaTrader once again showed a negative balance. Cy had been butchered for a second time.
Cy messaged Jessica:
. . .
Distraught, Cy drove to his childhood home in San Francisco. He’d lost over $1.04 million of real money — his initial $440,000 plus the second round of $600,000 — and was experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“I never wanted to harm anybody, it was just myself. I am to blame, it was my fault, I lost everything, I lost my parents’ money, I lost my daughter’s tuition, instead of reducing my wife’s work hours — now she has to work more,” he told Forbes. “I had this thought of ramming the car into a barrier and just let that be and let God decide whether I would live through this or I would die.”
When Cy texted Jessica a picture of himself from an ambulance on the way to a psychiatric ward, he was met with a cold reply.
She’d taken nearly all of his life savings.
“HIS FUNDS ARE UNRECOVERABLE”
That month, Cy filed a police report with his local police department, but he doesn’t have much hope they’ll recover his stolen money, let alone find Jessica and the people who stole it.
“They lack the resources, they lack the technology with the cryptocurrency,” he said. “[The police] took all my statements and tried to pass the case to the FBI.”
“Curse you forever lose fortune, bad health, to you and your whole family for ruining my life!!!”
Shawn Bradstreet, the special agent in charge of the United States Secret Service’s San Francisco Field Office, is actively working on many pig butchering cases, including Cy’s. “Currently, his funds are unrecoverable, but we are still investigating his case,” he said by email.
Bradstreet says that the scale of pig butchering is “unprecedented right now,” which makes it challenging for law enforcement to keep up — especially since the perpetrators are largely, if not entirely, overseas. Forbes called and messaged the number Cy used to communicate with Jessica, and she did not respond to a request for comment.
For months, Cy kept sending Jessica desperate messages, pleading with her to return the money.
“Curse you forever lose fortune, bad health, to you and your whole family for ruining my life!!!” he wrote to Jessica on February 8, 2022.
Over the ensuing months, he continued to plead with her, even offering to help if she herself was being trafficked.
His final message to her was on June 1, 2022: “I have no money but there are people that can help you if you are doing this unwillingly.”
She did not respond.
Now, some three months later, Cy is doing his best to repair the rubble of broken family relationships and financial ruin he created. But it’s hard work with young kids. A GoFundMe established for him by a family member has raised only a tiny fraction of his losses. Cy’s debts haunt him daily; so does Jessica.
“For the kids, I try to bury my emotions. I’m fighting my demons every single day,” he said in a recent WhatsApp message. “Everyday I’m living in this nightmare.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call or text the new three-digit code, .