The man from dating app Hinge ticked all the boxes for Tho Vu.
He was a childishly handsome Chinese architect, staying in Maryland on a long-term assignment. They had never met in person — he was still waiting to get his COVID-19 booster shot, he said — but they had been texting for months, and she had developed a serious crush. He called her his “little darling” and told her he planned to take her to China to meet her family once the pandemic was over.
So when the man, whose name was Ze Zhao, told Vu, who works in customer service at a security company, that he could help her make money by trading Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, she was intrigued.
“I had heard a lot about crypto in the news,” she said. “I am a curious person and he was very knowledgeable about the whole negotiation process.”
But the man was not trying to help Vu invest his money. It was trapping her in an increasingly popular type of financial scam, she said, that combines the age-old lure of romance with the new temptation of overnight cryptocurrency riches.
Within weeks, Vu, 33, had sent over $300,000 worth of Bitcoin, almost all of his savings, to an address that Zhao said was connected to an account on OSL, Hong’s cryptocurrency exchange. Kong. The website appeared legit, offered 24/7 online customer support, and even updated to show that Vu’s balance changed as the price of Bitcoin rose and fell.
Zhao – whose real name could not be verified – had promised her that her crypto investments would help them get married and start a life together.
“We can make more money on top of OSL and go on honeymoon,” he said, according to a screenshot of their texts that Vu shared with me.
But there was no honeymoon and no crypto bargain. Instead of going to an exchange account, Vu’s money went to the scammer’s digital wallet, and it disappeared.
Now she struggles to make sense of what happened.
“I thought I knew him,” she said. “It was all a lie.”
Romance scams – the term for online scams that involve faking a romantic interest to gain a victim’s trust – have increased during the pandemic. So have crypto prices. This has made crypto a useful entry point for criminals looking to separate victims from their savings.
About 56,000 romance scams, totaling $139 million in losses, were reported to the Federal Trade Commission last year, according to agency data. That’s nearly twice as many reports as the agency received the previous year. In a bulletin last fall, the FBI office in Oregon warned that crypto dating scams were emerging as a major category of cybercrime, with more than 1,800 cases reported in the first seven months of the year. .
Experts believe that this particular type of scam originated in China before spreading to the United States and Europe. Its Chinese name roughly translates to “pig butcher” – a reference to how victims are “fattened up” by flattery and romance before being scammed.
Jan Santiago, deputy director of the Global Anti-Scam Organization, a nonprofit that represents victims of online cryptocurrency scams, said that unlike typical romance scams — which typically target older adults and less tech-savvy – these scammers seem to prey on younger people. and more educated women on dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge.
“It’s mostly millennials who get ripped off,” Santiago said.
Jane Lee, a researcher at online fraud prevention firm Sift, began looking into crypto dating scams last year. She signed up for several popular dating apps and soon met men who tried to offer her investment advice.
“People are lonely because of the pandemic, and crypto is super hot right now,” she said. “The combination of the two really made this scam a success.”
Lee, whose company works with several dating apps to prevent fraud, said these scammers usually try to move the conversation from a dating app to WhatsApp – where the messages are encrypted and harder for businesses or companies to track. the police.
From there, the scammer bombards the victim with flirtatious messages until they turn the conversation into cryptocurrency. The scammer, posing as a successful crypto trader, offers to show the victim how to invest their money for quick, low-risk gains.
Then, Lee said, the scammer helps the victim buy cryptocurrency from a legitimate site, like Coinbase or Crypto.com, and provides instructions to transfer it to a fake cryptocurrency exchange. The victim’s money appears on the exchange’s website, and he or she begins to “invest” it in various crypto assets, under the direction of the scammer, before the scammer eventually runs away with money.
What makes this scam so insidious is how much more elaborate it is than the Nigerian prince scams of yore. Some victims have described being directed to realistic websites with charts and tickers showing the prices of various crypto assets. The names and addresses of bogus exchanges change frequently, and victims are often allowed to withdraw small amounts of money at first, which makes them more comfortable depositing larger sums later.
“This type of scam is labor intensive and time consuming,” said Santiago of the Global Anti-Scam Organization. “They are very meticulous in their social engineering.”
According to experts, cryptocurrencies are particularly useful to scammers because of the relative privacy they offer. Bitcoin transactions are publicly visible, but because digital wallets can be set up anonymously, technically sophisticated criminals can obscure the money trail. And because there is no central bank or deposit insurance to heal the victims, the stolen money usually cannot be recovered.
Niki Hutchinson, a 24-year-old social media producer from Tennessee, fell victim to a crypto romance scam last year. She was visiting a friend in California when she met a man named Hao on Hinge, who said he lived nearby and worked in the apparel business.
The two continued to text on WhatsApp for over a month after returning home. She told Hao that she was adopted from China; he told her that he was Chinese too and that he was from the same province as his biological family. He started calling her “sister” and joking that he was her long-lost brother. (They video-chatted once, she said — but Hao only partially showed his face and quickly hung up.)
“I thought he was shy,” she said.
Hutchinson had just inherited nearly $300,000 from the sale of his childhood home, after his mother passed away. Hao suggested that he invest this money in cryptocurrency.
“I want to teach you how to invest in cryptocurrency when you are free, how to make changes in your life and how to bring extra income to your life,” he texted her, according to a screenshot. exchange screen.
Eventually, she agreed, sending a small amount of crypto to the wallet address he gave her, which he said was connected to an account on a crypto exchange named ICAC. Then, when the money appeared on the ICAC website, she sent more.
She couldn’t believe how easy it had been to make money, just by following Hao’s advice. Eventually, after investing all of her savings, she took out a loan and continued to invest more.
In December, Hutchinson began to have suspicions when she tried to withdraw money from her account. The transaction failed and an ICAC customer service agent told her that her account would be frozen unless she paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes. His conversation with Hao became silent.
“I was like, oh, my God, what did I do?” she says.
Now Hutchinson is trying to get his life back together. She and her dad live in their RV — one of the few assets they have left — and she’s working with Florida police to try and track down her con man.
Hutchinson doesn’t expect her money back, but she hopes other people will be more cautious of strangers who promise to help them invest in cryptocurrency.
“You hear all these stories of people becoming millionaires,” she said. “It felt like, oh, well, cryptocurrency is the new trend, and I have to get in there.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.