Sex & Relationships
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A 37-year-old tech executive from Philadelphia claims she fell for an online romance scam known as “pig butchering” — a cryptocurrency investment scheme she says drained her bank account of more than $450,000.
The loss prompted Shreya Datta to rent a cheaper apartment, sell her car and reflect on the red flags in her so-called “relationship,” which began on the dating app Hinge.
“It’s like my psychology was hacked,” Datta told the Philadelphia Inquirer of the experience.
The term “pig butchering” derives from the Chinese name for the scam, as that’s where the scheme is suspected to have originated, according to the Inquirer.
It goes like this: Con artists pretend to be innocent people looking for love.
Once they find their partner — aka their victim — they tell them they made a large fortune trading cryptocurrency. They encourage their new love to try it as well, having them invest real money via a fake app.
As the relationship builds, the scammer tries to convince the partner to dump more and more money into the “investment platform.” The scammers will often find marks on dating apps, but sometimes they take their racket to LinkedIn or WhatsApp, the Inquirer reported.
In the beginning, the victim may be allowed to withdraw some funds from the fake app, but after a number of investments, they are unable to take out more. In a last-ditch effort to get more money before the scam is discovered, the app will ask for a payment called a “tax.”
According to a report last month from the US Department of Justice, investment fraud caused the highest losses of any 2022 scam reported by the public to the FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center, totaling $3.31 billion.
Vice and the South China Morning Post reported pig-butchering scams are run by criminal groups that operate out of centers in Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. They boast thousands of workers — many lured on empty promises of a legitimate job.
Instead, the workers themselves are “enslaved and abused,” according to the Inquirer, and are given “sophisticated scripts” to target victims.
One NGO worker told Vice the system was turning into a “humanitarian crisis.”
For her part, Datta told the Inquirer that “Ancel Mali” was the name of the person she met on Hinge.
She said he claimed to have moved to the West Philadelphia area from France, where he had worked as a wine trader.
Mali eventually asked if they could take their conversations to the messaging app, WhatsApp.
Datta agreed, and Mali claimed to delete his Hinge profile, saying he “wanted to focus on her,” according to the Inquirer.
Datta was newly divorced, and she liked that he was so devoted to her — or so it seemed.
The first week on WhatsApp, Mali reportedly told her he dreamed of “achieving wealth freedom.”
“So that I don’t have to work all my life, and I can have more time to accompany my lover to travel around the world, leaving footprints of our love in every corner of the world,” Mali wrote in messages obtained by the Inquirer.
He told Datta one of his hobbies was trading cryptocurrency, eventually persuading her to download a crypto trading app that appeared to be from SoFi.
Mali walked her through the process, allegedly converting $1,000 from her savings account into crypto using a real platform called Coinbase, then sending it to the fake trading app.
The app appeared legitimate — it asked her for two-factor authentication, and even had customer service. At first, her $1,000 turned into $1,250, and she was able to withdraw the entire balance from the app, something scammers often allow in the beginning.
As time went on, the couple’s plans for meeting each other kept falling through. At the time he said he had a business trip, she reported being told her investment of $6,000 had turned into $9,000.
Mali was sweeping Datta off her feet, constantly checking in on her and sending selfies and “flirty emojis.”
“I was in a trance,” she told the Inquirer. “I felt like I had met my person.”
But Datta said Mali insisted if she wanted to start making “real money,” she would “need to increase their investment.”
She claims Mali lent her $150,000, instructing her to sell stocks and take out personal loans.
She said she even liquidated her 401(k), raising questions from people at work.
By the end of March, her $450,000 investment in the fake app had more than doubled, she said, but she couldn’t withdraw it. Instead, she was hit with a demand for a 10% personal tax to access her own money.
Alarm bells started to go off in her head, so she contacted her lawyer brother in London.
They hired a private investigator and allegedly found the photos Mali had sent her were not of him, but of a German personal trainer.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘It’s just money,’” Datta told the Inquirer. “Some days I’m like, ‘I should just cry.’”
Datta, who moved to the US from India in 2008 to complete her master’s degree, told the outlet she filed a report with the FBI and the police, unsure if she will ever be able to recover her money.
In a statement to The Post on Thursday, a Philadelphia police spokesperson said the investigation into Datta’s report “is active and ongoing with Central Detective Division.”
A Hinge spokesperson told The Post: “The unfortunate reality is that scammers may pull on the heartstrings and prey on those looking for love or connection — not just on dating apps but on all online platforms.”
“Over the last several years as these types of scams have grown in popularity, we’ve taken steps to help prevent and warn users of potential scams or fraud using automated tools to detect words and phrases and proactively intervene,” the statement continued.
“Earlier this year, we pushed out a consumer education campaign on the different types of scams and how to identify common behaviors to help users protect themselves.”
The Post also reached out to Datta and the Philadelphia FBI office for comment.
In the meantime, Datta is sharing her story to help others in the same position.
“My goal is to not hide,” she told the outlet.
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