Cindy Tsai’s marriage was unraveling. Her gastric cancer had returned, and her prognosis was terminal. So when a handsome young stranger messaged her on WhatsApp in October 2021, Tsai, alone in her Newtonville home, was grateful for the distraction.
He said his name was Jimmy, he was 35, and had recently moved to Los Angeles from northeast China. He had found success in business — working for his family’s clothing company and managing his own hedge fund — but little in the way of love. Jimmy was attentive and polite, and Tsai was flattered.
Jimmy was also a savvy investor, according to the photos he sent Tsai of his cryptocurrency returns. He pressed Tsai, 51, a former attorney, to invest, too. At first, Tsai demurred, but Jimmy persisted. She eventually bought almost $20,000 worth of Ethereum, which she transferred, under Jimmy’s direction, to an account that appeared to be linked to a Hong Kong-based cryptocurrency exchange.
Tsai would soon learn that Jimmy wasn’t who he said he was, and that the account he’d helped her create was connected to a bogus site he controlled. Tsai would go on to lose $2.5 million to a sophisticated type of romance scam that has entrapped thousands of people around the world. Like Tsai, many of the victims are Chinese speaking and of Asian descent, traits they had in common with their scammers that were exploited to gain their trust.
“Once you’ve been groomed enough, it’s like quicksand,” Tsai said. “You so [badly] want to believe that what you’re doing is true, and that this relationship with this person is real.”
Online romance scams have exploded since the coronavirus pandemic began. About 56,000 romance scams were reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2021, more than double the number of reports filed with the agency in 2019. Last year, victims reported losing $547 million, a 78 percent increase from 2020 alone.
Growing curiosity about cryptocurrency has served as a strategic — and lucrative — hook for scammers. According to the FTC, the largest losses to romance scams were paid in crypto, totaling $139 million last year.
“Excitement about investing in cryptocurrency — paired with just a general lack of understanding about how it works . . . is just kind of a recipe for some very effective scams,” said Emma Fletcher, a senior data researcher at the FTC.
The scheme Tsai fell for is believed to have originated in China, where it’s known as the “pig-butchering scam.” Unwitting victims are figuratively “fattened up” — complimented, courted, and doted on for weeks — before ultimately being led to financial slaughter.
Experts say con artists seek out their victims on popular dating apps, like Hinge and Tinder, and social media sites, such as Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even Quora, before steering their conversations to the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp. Posing as successful investors, scammers eventually persuade their victims to buy increasing amounts of cryptocurrency, with instructions for transferring their assets to a phony exchange website they control. Victims learn they’ve been swindled when they discover they are unable to cash out their supposed investments.
“These websites are often either an impersonation of a legitimate trading website, or a fraudulently created one,” Kristen Setera, a spokesperson for the Boston division of the FBI, said in a statement. The decentralized nature of cryptocurrency makes it almost impossible for victims to recover their funds, Setera noted, “because unlike traditional bank transfers where a transaction can remain pending for days before settlement, cryptocurrency funds are immediately transferred.”
The FBI would not comment on Tsai’s case or confirm whether the agency was investigating it.
Unlike traditional romance scams, which tend to prey on older adults, targets of crypto fraud skew younger. A survey of more than 500 pig-butchering scam victims reached by the Global Anti-Scam Organization, or GASO, a volunteer-run victim advocacy and support group, found that the majority were millennial women, and nearly 90 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
According to Grace Yuen, a Massachusetts-based spokesperson for GASO, the scam, believed to have started in late 2020, has spread from China and East Asia to the United States, Europe, Australia, and Canada, where perpetrators have disproportionately zeroed in on the Chinese diaspora.
“Certainly, the pandemic affected everyone quite a lot and sort of fueled that loneliness,” Yuen said. “I think the Asian community in general was quite COVID-phobic, and that . . . made them particularly susceptible to the scam because they wanted to sort of scratch that social itch, but they weren’t able to do that in the conditions of the pandemic.”
One woman, a 30-year-old Chinese American user experience designer in Brooklyn, lost $280,000 to three different scammers in a series of phony crypto investments over the course of a few months in 2021. The woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her clients, met her scammers on Instagram, and they bonded over their shared interest in Hong Kong music and cinema.
Having grown up in the age of chat rooms and MySpace, she said, it wasn’t unusual for her to meet new friends on the Internet. Meanwhile, rising rates of anti-Asian violence in New York had made her wary of leaving her apartment.
“If the outside world is not welcome to my presence, I’ll make my friends online — that’s exactly how I felt,” the woman said. “The fact that they were seemingly Chinese, they spoke the same language as me, and we had similar entertainment interests, it builds another layer of trust.”
Chitra Raghavan, a forensic psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, views romance fraud as a type of gender-based violence, similar to domestic abuse. Scammers who prey on their victims’ racial identity are particularly insidious, she said.
“When you target something as fragile as identity, particularly minority identity in America right now . . . and make it unsafe to connect [with other Asians], you’re giving such an ugly message to young Asian Americans, which is don’t trust men from your group,” Raghavan said.
Jimmy and Tsai would message sporadically. He would greet her in Chinese; she would respond in English. He shared photos of himself — posing at the gym, sunbathing, and scuba diving — of his French bulldog, of the elaborate meals he cooked, of his exotic car collection. She confided in him about the demise of her 16-year marriage, her immunotherapy treatment, her renewed religious faith.
Tsai, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Hong Kong, could empathize with Jimmy and his plight as a new immigrant, struggling to learn English and make American friends. She had visited the Chinese region where he claimed he was from. She recognized the Chinese dishes he liked to cook. When he started calling her on the phone, they chatted in Mandarin.
“As an immigrant, you could totally relate, and as a Chinese person, you want to help them because that’s sort of what a lot of us do with new immigrants,” Tsai said.
For another victim, Elisa Warner, a 29-year-old graduate student in Michigan, what hurt more than losing her life’s savings — $32,000 — was her scammer’s betrayal. Warner, who is half-Filipina, met Chris in the summer of 2021 on the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel. Chris claimed he was from Malaysia and working for his family business in Vancouver. He was funny and flirtatious, and Warner fell for him easily. They were soon discussing their future, with plans to meet in Los Angeles.
“Worse than losing the money was that I lost somebody who I thought was my friend,” she said, “somebody who I really trusted.”