Here's why you may be at risk from a 'pig-butchering' scam

ConsumerAffairs

And that distant relative who left you a fortune? Probably not.

Consumer scams have been off to a slow start in 2024, but a new report suggests things are starting to heat up.

Visa’s new Spring 2024 edition of its Biannual Threats Report says that we’re entering a season where increasingly organized, sophisticated threat actors are targeting the most vulnerable point in the payments ecosystem: humans.

The trend now isn’t as scattershot as it has been in the past. Quite the opposite, the new game is to go granular, where scammers zone in on fewer consumers who are bigger fish to fry, with hauls far more lucrative than getting a couple of hundred dollars off of an email phishing expedition thrown out to millions of people. 

Sadly, one upshot of this in the scammers’ favor is that more than one-third of the adults surveyed decided not to report scams committed against them because they may feel foolish or gullible for being a victim of the scam. This can be especially true for scams that target the elderly or those perceived as intelligent.

And once again, a no-thank-you tip of the hat to artificial intelligence (AI).

“With the use of Generative AI and other emerging technologies, scams are more convincing than ever, leading to unprecedented losses for consumers,” said Paul Fabara, chief risk and client services officer at Visa. 

Squeal like a pig

Capitalizing on holidays like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve through social media and dating sites, scammers lure victims into “pig butchering” scams – online relationships where victims are convinced to invest in fake cryptocurrency trading platforms. Leveraging AI helps add more convincing campaigns and pig butchering scams have led to billions of dollars of losses for consumers.

One such slaughterhouse scam targeted a Massachusetts resident and their $2,300,000 worth of cryptocurrency.

The scammer established a level of trust with a victim in online communications and then enticed the victim into investing in a fraudulent crypto scheme. Luckily, the person didn’t let go of all the cryptocurrency they had, but they did get tricked into wiring over $400,000 worth into a cryptocurrency wallet hosted by a legitimate cryptocurrency exchange. 

When the Department of Justice started looking behind other crypto account doors, it found that the accounts from which the cryptocurrency was seized had been associated with funds from 36 other victims of fraud located across the U.S. 

“The combined use of AI and preying on human vulnerabilities makes pig butchering scams dangerously effective,” Visa’s Michael Jabbara, senior vice president of Global Head of Fraud Services, said. 

“By targeting holiday seasons such as Valentine’s Day, when people are especially lonely, fraudsters are able to create compelling, AI-generated dating profiles that more easily convince a victim to believe in the fake profile and cooperate with its fraudulent demands.”

What are your chances of being a pig butchering target? Going by Visa’s study, you’re probably one in 10 who could get hit. Those numbers could actually go up if you are prone to respond to text messages from people who you don’t know or spend considerable time on social media.

Just ask Comedy Central's John Oliver. His recent expose on pig butchering claims that scammers often research their target using social media – “where there is a lot of information about people so they can pretend to have something in common.” Watch…

'Your Uncle Cephas from Gatlinburg left you some money'

The other concerning scam – one that targets even more consumers than pig butchering – is the inheritance scam.

In this ruse, victims are notified about an inheritance left by a long-lost relative, often coming from a seemingly legitimate law firm or other professional entity. If you think this sounds like the old Nigerian king scam, bingo! It’s just been updated by taking out the Nigerian reference to try and snag some new victims.

“Inheritance scams are one type of advance fee scam where the victim is asked for money before they can collect their windfall. Usually, a letter or email is sent to a group of people with the same last name, or those on a list of email addresses purchased by the scammers,” explains the Seniors Blue Book.

“They often pose as lawyers … and the stories and methods they use are constantly changing and evolving, but they all ask for money in advance. They may also try to get your personal information to target your bank account or identity.”

Nowadays, inheritance scammers have added letters sent through the Post Office to their arsenal. With Photoshop on their side, they can make them look convincingly real and, thanks to AI, with no typos or bad foreign language grammar.

You can stay clear by remembering one very important thing: Real inheritance lawyers won't ask for upfront fees. If you get a letter pitching you on claiming your long-lost inheritance, you should contact your Postmaster or Postal Inspection Service, or your state attorney general's office. Between one of those three, someone will tell you the truth.

Are your credit card and service providers giving you the protection you need?

As you can see, it’s bad out there, leaving major brands no choice but to get proactive in protecting consumers from scams. Visa has spent $10 billion over the last 10 years. AT&T’s filters are blocking more than 1 billion spam text messages a month from reaching customers. Amazon claims it eliminated more than 40,000 phishing websites and 10,000 phone numbers impersonating the company.

These efforts are nice, but what’s better on your end is how you’re protected if and when something goes wrong. Is it time for a check-up? Maybe.

Ask your credit card company or bank what protection they offer. For example, Chase offers near real-time text or email alerts when they suspect suspicious activity on your card. You can quickly confirm whether the charges are legitimate, helping prevent further fraudulent use.

Visa protects cardholders from financial losses in case of unauthorized use. They often reverse fraudulent charges quickly, ensuring consumers don't bear the burden. And Experian’s CreditLock feature allows you to "lock" your Experian credit report, preventing anyone from opening new accounts in your name without first unlocking it.

But don’t just assume – ask your credit card providers about scam protection. Ask about… 

Zero-Liability Policies: For example, “What is your exact zero-liability policy? Does it apply to all types of unauthorized transactions (online, in-store, over the phone)?”

Fraud Detection and Prevention: “Will I be notified immediately of potential fraud – and how (text, email, phone)?” Also, ask if you can set up custom spending alerts or geographically-based restrictions on your card? As this reporter found out last summer, if I had that turned on, I would’ve never gotten hit by someone buying things using my credit card 1,000 miles away.

One last word to the wise: Ask for the answers in writing. Anyone can tell you anything over the phone, but you should request that the credit card company send you written confirmation of their policies or provide a link to their full policies online.

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