Fallen victim to a romance investment fraud? You’re now on a suckers list. Prepare to deal with scammers all over again in various altruistic guises. 😯
Whether it’s currencies or stocks, unverified dating and social media profiles using photos of attractive individuals have led to countless online thefts dressed up as profitable opportunities.
The victims are left with with a lighter wallet or – in the most serious cases – an empty bank account.
Owing to the pandemic and worldwide uncertainty, con artists have had an easier time building trust and persuading vulnerable targets to transfer sums of money as part of bogus business arrangements.
The most insidious aspects of such deceptions are the vulture-like “scam recovery experts” attempting to squeeze every last penny from existing victims.
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After publishing the original article about Chinese Tinder scammers, a Hong Kong woman introduced herself in the comments section of said article offering to help victims reclaim lost funds.
What unfolded was a duplicitous psychodrama bordering on the unbelievable and lasting several months.
Her WhatsApp number was published as part of her comment but removed days later by me.
My reply was sarcastic: “Sure, we believe you. Tell us if someone is ‘real’ and then we can invest.” 🙄
Article comments came thick and fast. Britain, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Australia and America all told similar stories collectively running thousands of words.
Meanwhile, my phone rang frequently with callers keen to tell of online dating matches gone awry. 😕
Many were amused by what were mostly harmless virtual encounters with gold-digging foreign beauties. Others were suspicious, distrustful – seeking advice – or in some cases, distraught over large financial losses.
Huobi (a well know crypto exchange) has issues with scammers and goes to great lengths to point out the characteristics of a typical investment fraud including the part where the victim is allowed to make a small profit – at least initially.
After having been fattened up like a pig, the victim begins depositing larger amounts to “invest” but, ultimately, is locked out of their exchange account where their funds are withheld. This is the slaughter, known as Sha Zhu Pan (杀猪盘).
A website called Global Anti Scam surveyed 241 victims of romance and grooming investment crime and found most of the victims were well-educated women aged between 25 and 40. A larger survey needs be conducted to obtain more accurate figures.
Singapore Police crime reports for 2021 show an increase in romance fraud and investments while Google Trends showed an uptick in worldwide WhatsApp scams since the beginning of the COVID period.
Obviously, text messaging apps have seen increased usage during international lockdowns.
Dating and investment fraud has been an issue for years, but notice the blue spikes in the graph below representing 2020 USA tinder scam search topics.
After serving prison time and having changed his ways, an individual identified as “Jon” says no matter the scam type, victims share similar characteristics that might make them more susceptible to scammers who tend to be “very good in human psychology” and know how to “trigger emotional states”.
“People are gullible to believe whatever’s told to them without doing research” he told Channel News Asia in an article containing rare first-hand scammer testimony.
Following my own 2020 article, Twitter messages arrived, as did emails packed with screenshots and detailed written reports.
Then, one day, the iPhone dinged three times in quick succession. It was May again, this time via WhatsApp. The star of the show.
The text messages followed up on her article comments. She wanted to know why her phone number had been removed because, according to her, it was preventing her from helping others to “solve the fraud”.
Like gamblers, those who lose significant amounts of money through investment become desperate to recoup their losses, and that’s where proclaimed scam recovery firms come into play.
Their basic message is this: “Have you been scammed? Lost money to bogus investors? Looking to reclaim your stolen funds? We can help!”
It’s fair to say 99.99% of recovery firms are simply more scammers taking advantage of the chaos left in the wake of prior financial fraud. They prey on people who have already been fooled and do so in hope of reanimating their slaughtered pig corpse for a posthumous bonus shakedown. 😐
To put it in unsentimental business terms, one who has already fallen for fraud is a qualified lead for the next criminal to have their way with.
It’s tough to determine the success rate of scams because less than 5% of victims report their losses perhaps due in part to embarrassment.
Because investment fraud involves willing participation, it’s difficult to form a case and prosecute a suspect, especially if there is no one to go after due to lack of official victim reports.
Naturally, if you’ve been duped by someone from a foreign country, it’s harder to file a complaint.
The conversation with May soured when it was made clear her request would not be fulfilled. 🙄
She became upset and quickly demonstrated a level of maturity rarely seen in my WhatsApp messages. The vile insults only reinforced the suspicion that this indeed was just another confidence trickster trying their luck, failing and then venting their frustration.
Regardless of language or culture differences, this type of childish vulgarity from a self-proclaimed investment analyst is just low-class.
In my view, May (her Chinese name is Mei) considered the article’s growing comments section her own personal hunting ground for new potential victims.
All she needed to do was get past the gatekeeper controlling the website – me – and post her WhatsApp number in order to follow through on her evil plan. 👿
See the video below for a voice-acted dramatisation of the website comments and initial text message exchange between us.
➡ Strong language, adult themes, not family-friendly.
Days later, May messaged again, this time to apologise for her behaviour.
It was the beginning of a bizarre and fascinating “friendship” maintained in the interests of screenshots and evidence. Undoubtedly, she had an agenda too.
The full video drama (four episodes) is available at the end of this page.
She was a clever woman, yet many of her sentences seemed to be from a script.
Despite her ability to respond quickly and provide funny, smart, in-depth observations, it felt like talking to a robot; the kind of person who would be able to explain the concept of love without actually experiencing it.
Although our conversations touching on seriously dark subjects, she maintained a cheerfulness that seemed – at times – inappropriate and misjudged.
In my own mind, and without letting her know, her nickname became “Joker”.
May tried to video call me several times but it wasn’t convenient for me to talk. We did have a brief audio call in which she used a translation app due to her poor spoken English.
She seemed to be pushing the narrative that swindlers and schemers will never, ever, under any circumstances, have a video call, and because she was willing to make video calls, she must surely be genuine, sincere and, well… not at all a criminal.
Despite the suspicions, my guard lowered slightly.
The comments section of the original article continued to grow.
In June 2021 a woman named Dana contacted me on WhatsApp to relate her own experience with a Chinese man to whom she’d almost sent $1000.
He had claimed to be working in some type of charitable initiative to help poor children living in the mountains, and it was this exact story that came up in other scam reports.
A woman I matched with on Tinder said she ran a plastic surgery hospital. Amazingly, she too found time to support poor children living in the mountains.
All this while helping total strangers make investment profits. Wow!
A man from the Netherlands contacted me to tell me about an attractive Chinese woman who had begun messaging him on WhatsApp.
Where she obtained his phone number is unclear but she too talked of – you guessed it – poor kids in the mountains. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the topic of investment to arise.
More people contacted me on WhatsApp, and by now some of them were asking for advice with regards to May.
They’d seen her WhatsApp phone number in the comment she wrote (before it was removed) and contacted her thinking she would help them. Subsequently, she had begun giving them advice on how to retrieve their stolen money.
Could she be trusted after all?
They sent me screenshots that did indeed show she was doling out advice, but she was also making it clear that if they were so inclined, they could invest a small amount with her trades to make profits.
A WhatsApp group was created with May and myself as moderators. How would she act? What would she say?
We both added to the group people who were scammed, or nearly scammed. Once I was satisfied her contacts were real (and not shills of hers), I began texting them in private, telling them May was under suspicion.
The group lasted less than 12 hours.
Apart from May, everyone in the group – myself included – received spam phone calls advertising nonsense investment opportunities. The call to my phone was spoofed from a landline area code associated with Bristol in the UK, yet the callers said they were in Switzerland.
Accusations flew back and forth within the group.
May quickly discovered we were privately discussing her so, using her admin privileges, kicked everyone from the group before exiting. Within minutes everyone was added back in by me.
The discussion, in May’s absence, became laser-focused upon her.
Le me rewind a bit. Having previously become friendly enough with May, we’d added each other to Facebook days earlier. She was trying to deceive me, and I was trying to deceive her, but with smiles. We were trying to outdo one another. The photos she’d uploaded to her profile were inconsistent.
The pictures were of a pretty girl but it was hard to say for sure if it was the same person in each photo.
Reverse image searches of Chinese women in Google images is ineffective for several reasons, but a Reddit user recommended two specific search engines for analysing suspected stolen photos.
Here’s what he said:
“I would usually start a RES with Yandex. It is by far the most superior tool out there. However, as this is a photo of a Chinese person the best starting option is Baidu.
“One Baidu search of her photo and I had a direct hit – an uncropped profile photo with a watermark in the bottom right. The watermark text was Chinese characters and an English word.”
Yandex gave me a winning result on the first try.
A lookup on one of the photos from May’s Facebook (girl on golfing green; could not possibly be her) revealed the real owner. The photo was from an Instagram account.
What struck me most was that commenting abilities on all her Facebook updates, photos and videos were disabled.
It didn’t ring true as a genuine profile, especially when the videos never actually featured May and were all shot from a first-person point of view.
The gratuitous displays of wealth (sports cars, lavish parties, wine, clothes) were ridiculous. 😆
Also on her Facebook timeline were stock photos easily discoverable in Google images and used to give the impression she worked from some fancy office.
Who honestly needs eleven monitors? 😆
Furthermore, the photo she’d been using on her WhatsApp the whole time wasn’t even her. After I probed, she explained the woman in the photo was of her sister.
❓ ❓ ❓
This supposed sister can be seen in some of the photos below.
Upon viewing May’s Facebook profile, Dana voiced more concerns. She had by now conducted a Zoom call with our slippery suspect (described as “chubby”) and a further video conversation was secretly recorded.
May spoke Mandarin (not Canton, as expected) and looked different to any of the people in the photos on her profile.
Eventually it emerged she was promoting a suspicious brokerage called Ciizurn.
Research into Ciizurn showed that this company (and all its variants) is nothing more than an electronic wallet for capturing funds, subsequently locking users out of accessing or withdrawing money only after they’d deposited and “traded” on larger amounts.
MetaTrader4 was also frequently mentioned as the preferred trading platform. It didn’t take long to discover MT4 reports are easily forged and is often used in fraud, though it does have legitimate uses too.
Once confronted over the details, she refused to answer questions and became angry when others from the WhatsApp group quizzed her.
A private investigator from Hong Kong told me May was most likely just another cheat who, having sensed opportunity, was biding time with her own slow-cook hustle.
Meanwhile, Google searches on the topic of Asia investment crime turned up shocking reports, such as the story of the Hong Kong woman who lost $32m to phone scammers.
The ruthlessness and audacity behind such crimes started to hit home. 😥
In the 2021 book Criminal Contagion: How Mafias, Gangsters and Scammers Profit from a Pandemic, authors Tuesday Reitano and Mark Shaw make chilling observations in their analysis of the exploitation of our fears during COVID:
“At first we thought there was more disruption in some markets, notably illicit narcotics, than turned out to be the case. Meanwhile, some areas, particularly the cyber sphere, exceeded expectations as to the speed and breadth of criminal growth.
“In some cases, the relationship between the pandemic and crime was relatively straightforward: with fewer commercial flights in operation, drug couriers were unable to travel and deliver their products. In other cases, the impact was more indirect fears of contracting Covid-19, for example, changed consumer demand for illegal wildlife products in Asia.
“But a common theme emerged: criminal tactics were evolving and crime was continuing—even flourishing—while law enforcement struggled to keep up, hamstrung by the necessity of responding to the pandemic and weakened by droves of personnel falling sick.”
It was then revealed that 2021 cryptocurrency crime in Hong Kong had hit record levels with a single victim defrauded out of HK$124m.
In fact, May herself told me the tragic tale of a man who lost millions of yuan. It stirred the emotions for sure – probably part of her manipulation.
Suspicion towards this “Hong Kong analyst” was great enough that it was decided to produce videos highlighting techniques and tactics, as well as the emotional aspects of bogus friendships that precipitate such frauds.
This documentary is in four parts, delving into the machinations of several opportunistic fraudsters in a world groaning under the weight of all types of cyber crime.
The worst part about investigating liars, cheats and criminals is that it’s easy to become sucked into something you’re supposed to be consciously maintaining emotional distance from.
By the way, May’s geolocation was confirmed as Tsim Sha Tsui, southern Kowloon (she was not using a VPN or any anonymiser) so she was definitely in Hong Kong, working from a Windows 10 computer in a commercial tower block.
As of writing this very sentence (Oct ’21), her Facebook profile says she is living in London, England. With international borders closed, this is impossible.
Whether individual criminals can be identified is neither here nor there. More will always pop up Whac-a-Mole style, but you’ll begin to notice their patterns and general B.S. as you educate yourself on this particular crime.
It’s sad to frame it this way but we do live in an age where not getting scammed in pursuit of profit is a victory in itself. If that statement isn’t clear enough, here’s the bottom line: don’t send money to total strangers.
➡ Strong language, adult themes, not family-friendly.
➡ Each part is about 30 minutes.