The man from the dating app Hinge checked all of Tho Vu’s boxes.
He is a handsome manly architect from China who is in Maryland on a long term assignment. They have never met in person – he is still waiting to receive a Covid-19 booster, he said – but they have been texting back and forth for months and she has developed serious feelings. He called her “dear” and told her that he planned to take her to China to see her family when the pandemic was over.
So when a man named Ze Zhao told Ms. Vu, who works in customer service for a security company, that he could help her make money by trading Bitcoins and cryptocurrencies. other cryptocurrencies, she was attracted.
“I hear a lot about crypto in the news,” she said. “I am a curious person and he was really knowledgeable about the whole trading process.”
But the man did not try to help Ms. Vu invest his money. She says he is drawing her into an increasingly common type of financial scam, one that combines the age-old charm of romance with the newer temptation of overnight riches in electronic money. death.
Within weeks, Ms. Vu, 33, had sent over $300,000 worth of Bitcoins, almost her entire life savings, to an address Mr. Zhao had told her she was connected to. linked to an account on Hong Kong’s OSL cryptocurrency exchange. The site appears legit, offers 24/7 online customer support, and has even been updated to show Vu’s balance changing as the price of Bitcoin rises and falls.
Mr. Zhao – whose real name cannot be verified – has promised her that her crypto investments will help them get married and start a life together.
“We could make more money on OSL and go on a honeymoon,” he said, according to screenshots of their messages that Vu shared with me.
But no honeymoon, and no crypto. Instead of transferring to the exchange account, Ms. Vu’s money entered the digital wallet of the scammer and he disappeared.
Now, she is struggling to understand what happened.
“I think I know him,” she said. “Everything is a lie.”
Romance scams – the term for online scams that involve faking romantic interest in order to gain the victim’s trust – have increase during the pandemic. The same goes for cryptocurrency prices. That has made cryptocurrencies a useful entry point for criminals looking to split victims from their savings.
About 56,000 romance scams, totaling $139 million in damages, were reported to the Federal Trade Commission last year, according to agent data. That’s nearly double the number of reports the agency received in the previous year. In a news release last fall, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s office in Oregon alert Cryptocurrency dating scams are emerging as a major type of cybercrime, with more than 1,800 cases reported in the first seven months of the year.
Experts believe this particular type of scam originated in China before spreading to the United States and Europe. Its Chinese name roughly translate is “slaughter pig” – referring to the way victims are “patted” with flattery and romance before being tricked.
Jan Santiago, deputy director of the Global Anti-Fraud Foundation, a nonprofit that represents victims of online crypto scams, said that unlike typical romance scams, pattern – often targeting older, less tech-savvy people – these scammers appear to be going after younger people and more educated women on dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge.
“Most millennials are being scammed,” said Mr. Santiago.
Jane Lee, a researcher at online anti-fraud firm Sift, began looking into cryptocurrency dating scams last year. She signed up for several popular dating apps and quickly paired up with men trying to give her investment advice.
“People are lonely before the pandemic and cryptocurrencies are super hot right now,” she said. “The combination of the two has really made this a successful scam.”
Ms. Lee, whose company works with several dating apps to prevent fraud, said that these scammers often try to move conversation away from the dating app and onto WhatsApp, where messages encrypted and harder for companies or law enforcement to track.
From there, the scammer attacks the victim with flirty messages until the conversation turns to cryptocurrency. The scammer, posing as a successful crypto trader, offers to show victims how to invest their money for quick, low-risk returns.
Then, Ms. Lee said, the scammer helps victims buy crypto on a legitimate website, like Coinbase or Crypto.com, and provides instructions for transferring it to a fake crypto exchange. The victim’s funds appear on the exchange’s website and the person begins “investing” in various crypto assets, under the fraudster’s instructions, before the scammer withdraws the funds.
What makes this particular scam so insidious is how much more complicated it is than Nigerian prince scam by yore. Some victims have described being redirected to actual-looking websites with charts and banners showing the prices of various crypto-assets. The names and addresses of the fake exchanges are changed frequently, and victims are often allowed to withdraw small amounts early, making it more comfortable for them to deposit larger amounts later.
Mr. Santiago, of the Global Anti-Fraud Foundation, said: “This type of scam is quite laborious and time consuming. “They are very meticulous in their social engineering.”
Cryptocurrencies are particularly useful to scammers because of the relative privacy they provide, experts say. Bitcoin transactions are publicly visible, but because digital wallets can be set up anonymously, sophisticated digital criminals can obscure traces of funds. And because there is no central bank or deposit insurance to protect victims as a whole, stolen funds often cannot be recovered.
Niki Hutchinson, a 24-year-old social media producer from Tennessee, fell victim to a cryptocurrency scam last year. She was visiting a friend in California when she was on Hinge with a man named Hao, who said he lived nearby and worked in the clothing business.
The two continued messaging on WhatsApp for more than a month after she returned home. She told Hao that she was adopted from China; he told her that he was also Chinese, and that he was from the same province as her birth family. He begins to call her “sister” and jokes that he is her long-lost brother. (They talked via video once, she said — but Hao showed only part of his face and hung up quickly.)
“I thought he was shy,” she said.
Ms. Hutchinson just inherited nearly $300,000 from the sale of her childhood home, after her mother passed away. Hao suggested that she invest that money in crypto.
“I want to teach you to invest in crypto in your spare time, bring some change to your life and bring more income to your life,” he texted her, according to the photo. screenshot of the exchange.
She eventually agreed, sending a small amount of cryptocurrency to the wallet address he gave her, which he said was connected to an account on a cryptocurrency exchange called ICAC. Then – when the money appeared on ICAC’s website – she sent more.
She couldn’t believe how easy it was to make money just by following Hao’s advice. Finally, when she had invested all of her savings, she took out a loan and continued to invest more.
In December, Ms. Hutchinson became suspicious when she tried to withdraw money from her account. The transaction failed and an ICAC customer service agent told her her account would be frozen unless she paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes. Her conversation with Hao fell silent.
“I was like, oh, my God, what have I done?” she speaks.
Now, Ms. Hutchinson is trying to pull her life back together. She and her father live in their RV – one of the few properties they have left – and she is working with local police in Florida to try to track down her scammer.
Ms. Hutchinson doesn’t expect her money back, but she hopes that others will be more wary of strangers promising to help them invest in cryptocurrencies.
“You hear all the stories about people becoming millionaires,” she said. “It feels like, oh, crypto is the new trend and I need to get in on it.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/21/technology/crypto-scammers-new-target-dating-apps.html Crypto Scammers Target Dating Apps