British citizens are being conned out of their life savings in elaborate cryptocurrency scams operating out of prison-like industrial compounds in Southeast Asia, the Telegraph can reveal.
Thousands of crypto investors across the world have been defrauded out of hundreds of millions of pounds, possibly billions, by so-called “pig butchering” scams where victims are emotionally manipulated and their accounts fattened before being drained.
The scam gangs convince people, often highly educated and digitally savvy, to invest ever-increasing sums into sophisticated but fake cryptocurrency trading platforms. At first, they believe they are making good returns, before their money suddenly disappears.
The scale of the deception is so large that the National Crime Agency (NCA), FBI, Secret Service and Chinese police are among the international agencies trying to combat the crime, but they are making little headway in recovering the funds.
Sources with knowledge of the operation, which is run out of heavily guarded compounds in Southeast Asia, say several Britons are among a group of Europeans who have lost millions of pounds.
A NCA spokesperson said: “Serious and organised criminals are opportunists and will always adapt – exploiting digital currency marketplaces is no exception.
“Cryptoassets are more frequently being reported as an enabler to serious and organised crime.”
Earlier this month, the NCA launched a new unit aimed at tackling a surge in digital assets fraud, with a total of £226 million lost to cryptocurrency scams between October 2021 and September 2022, according to Action Fraud, the national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime.
Law enforcement is complicated by the transnational nature of the scam, with gangs operating across multiple jurisdictions and often out of remote, lawless enclaves in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
According to the United States Institute for Peace, these unregulated areas started out as “special economic zones” established by Chinese triad groups to run online gambling operations.
That business model collapsed during the pandemic, prompting criminal networks to switch to cryptocurrency fraud.
Account emptied ‘in seconds’
Tens of thousands of frontline scammers are believed to have been trafficked from Asia, Africa, South America and Eastern Europe and are held against their will in the militirised complexes, forced to commit digital assets crimes or face abuse and torture.
Sophie, a successful businesswoman and mother from the north of England, discovered that the man who lured her into the “pig butchering” scheme was imprisoned himself in Myanmar. She lost a quarter of a million pounds in the deception, collapsed, and spent two weeks in hospital.
Her scammer emotionally manipulated her for four months before persuading her to do a crypto investment together. He sent a link to a convincing, fake website – known as a smart contract – that contained technology that gave the scam gang a backdoor into her account.
On the day she realised she had been deceived, Sophie, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, describes watching as “the money in my account turned to 0,0,0,0 within two seconds.”
“I couldn’t stand up because most of my savings were gone,” she said, describing the whole months-long betrayal as “like being brainwashed. It still pains my heart.”
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