Regulators are finding more evidence of widespread "pig butchering" scams in the crypto industry that are leaving a trail of fleeced victims behind
Over the past two years, Chinese businessman Wang Yicheng has forged relationships with members of Thailand’s law-enforcement and political elite. During that time, a cryptocurrency account registered in Wang’s name was receiving millions of dollars linked to a type of cryptocurrency investment scam known as pig butchering.
In total, crypto worth more than $90 million flowed into the account between January 2021 and November 2022, and at least $9.1 million came from a crypto wallet that US blockchain analysis firm TRM Labs said was linked to pig-butchering scams. Two other major crypto-tracking firms also said the account received funds linked to such scams.
The crypto account registered to Wang was held at Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange, according to three blockchain analysis firms.
Wang didn’t respond to detailed questions for this article. Neither did the Thai government or the Thai police. Such pig-butchering scams — so called because the unsuspecting victim of the scam (the pig) is tricked by scammers into forking over money for a promised big return — have drawn intensifying scrutiny from global law enforcement over the past year, but little is publicly known about the people behind them. Crypto-fraud scams such as pig butchering have emerged as a multibillion-dollar criminal specialty that has entrapped victims around the world. The true scale of the losses is unknown because victims are often too embarrassed to report crimes to authorities.
In April, the U.S. Department of Justice said it seized about $112 million worth of crypto linked to pig-butchering scams, without identifying suspects. A warrant that resulted in the seizure of more than half that amount specified a Binance account registered in Thailand.
Erin West, a California prosecutor specializing in cybercrime, said many victims in the hundreds of pig-butchering cases she has handled since early 2022 have lost more than $1 million. Many are never able to recover their money.
Pig-butchering scams originated in China, financial crime specialists say. Many are now run by criminal organizations out of Southeast Asia that use victims of labor trafficking to contact individuals around the world, the U.S. Treasury said in September. Cases are difficult to prosecute. Perpetrators are typically “ruthless transnational organized crime syndicates” that thrive on corruption, said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Several scams connected to deposits made into the account in Wang’s name were run from an industrial park on the Myanmar-Thai border, one of the blockchain analysis firms said. Workers are trafficked to the area, known as KK Park, by gangs that force them to con people online, according to two former workers and groups that support workers or scam victims.
Binance publicly said it assisted Thai police with a probe into “a significant pig butchering scam,” and that about $277 million of assets were confiscated.
Complex layering scheme
In 2022, the volume of crypto reaching the account in Wang’s name mushroomed to almost $79 million, a near six-fold increase on the previous year.
Coinfirm, the blockchain analysis firm that reviewed the transaction records for a Reuters investigation, said deposits from funds linked to pig-butchering scams it previously investigated began entering the account as early as February 2022. Stolen crypto was moved to the account via a “complex layering scheme,” involving multiple different wallets, Coinfirm’s then-head of fraud investigations Roman Bieda told Reuters in May. The crypto moved between “dozens” of wallets and was mixed with funds from other sources, he said.
Some $9.1 million flowed to the account registered in Wang’s name from the wallet linked by TRM Labs to pig-butchering scams. The funds were moved in more than 50 transactions between August and October 2022.
Coinfirm linked the funds to pig-butchering scams based on information gathered from multiple victims and from publicly available information, Bieda said.
Coinfirm also said it identified funds originating from four pig-butchering scams. One involved a website called bigoneit.site, which channeled some of the funds that a California man had invested in the scam into the Wang-registered account. The site was a fake version of a legitimate crypto exchange called BigONE.
The genuine crypto-exchange BigONE said it takes fraudulent websites seriously, and that it had received at least 10 reports of such sites. “We always emphasize in any promotional material that only big.one and bigone.com are official domains,” a spokesperson for the Seychelles-registered company said.
Nearly all of the crypto deposited in the Wang-registered account was moved to other wallets. Between January 2021 and October 2022, about $87.5 million was transferred to almost 50 other crypto wallets, including at least five registered at regionally based crypto exchanges, Coinfirm said.
The account goes dark
On Nov. 3, 2022, activity in the crypto account registered to Wang abruptly stopped, the financial records show. The pattern of transfers to the account suggests Binance may have started an investigation and suspended the account, Coinfirm said.
Any financial firm should carry out additional checks on clients whose accounts process large amounts of money, said Ross Delston, a former US banking regulator and expert witness on anti-money laundering issues. Red flags likely to trigger checks on the source of funds include a high volume of transactions and frequent deposits of round-numbered figures, Delston said.
The account registered to Wang frequently received such deposits, according to the financial records.
This story is a shorter version of a Special Report published by our colleagues at Reuters. Additional reporting was done by Chen Lin in Singapore, Carlos Barria in San Francisco, the Reuters Sydney bureau, and the Reuters Beijing bureau.