With ‘pig butchering’ scams on the rise, FBI moves to stop the bleeding

She called herself Anna, and she reached out to Barry May over social media.

“It was on Facebook, was an Asian woman that supposedly lived in New York, on Fifth Avenue,” he said. “And so we just started chatting.”

Soon, he said, Anna was sending explicit photos. May, a divorced and retired insurance adjuster living in Mississippi, was smitten. She told him they could be together, but first she needed a favor.

Her aunt, she said, was holding $3 million of her money. She needed May to invest in cryptocurrency, so her aunt “would release that money to her and then she could come to me and we could get married.”

Barry May lost more than $500,000 after falling victim to an online scam known as
Barry May lost more than $500,000 after falling victim to an online scam known as

She promised huge returns. He sold property and liquidated his 401(k), sending the woman more than $500,000 — his life savings. An account on a website appeared to show his holdings.

He was about take out a loan to send more, until one day he got a call from an FBI agent. “They said this is a major fraud situation, and I’m not the only one.”

It turned out May, 62, had gotten caught up in an increasingly common internet scam — and also a new FBI initiative to protect people from financial ruin.

Enticed by the prospect of romance and riches, coaxed over LinkedIn and WhatsApp, thousands of people have sent their hard-earned money overseas, never to be seen again.

The con is called pig butchering — so named because victims are likened to hogs, fattened up for slaughter.

“It’s a sophisticated con, and you can see that because it’s a long-term con,” said James Barnacle, who runs the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section.

Barnacle said people from all walks of life have fallen victim to the scam, which typically is run by organized criminal groups based in Southeast Asia that often rely on workers who have been trafficked into forced labor. The gangs carefully research their victims and spend months or years gaining their trust. Often they allow victims to withdraw large sums of money, to boost their confidence that the investment scheme is on the level.

Barry May and his daughter, Bethany. (Courtesy of Barry May)
Barry May and his daughter, Bethany. (Courtesy of Barry May)

“In 2023, we saw well over $3.5 billion of reported losses, and over around 40,000 victims in the United States,” Barnacle said. “I’ve seen [individual] losses well into the $2-, $3-, $4 million.”

“It really is heartbreaking,” said Claudia Quiroz, who directs the Justice Department’s Cryptocurrency Enforcement Unit. “People probably feel like they are alone … how could they have fallen for this? … I would just say to those individuals, you’re not alone. This is very prolific. Reach out to law enforcement as soon as you can.”

Other victims interviewed by NBC News included a scientist and a chief financial officer, both of whom thought they had carefully researched the bogus crypto investment opportunities but were fooled by sophisticated fake websites.

Most of the stolen money is never recovered. But recently, FBI investigators have been trying stop the scam in progress, using sophisticated cybertechniques to identify and warn victims before they lose everything. They have even been able to seize and recover some of the stolen funds.

“Working financial institutions, reviewing suspicious activity reports, and reviewing complaint data … we are able to intervene in some cases and have been able to contact victims and stop them from making further investments in these fraud schemes,” Barnacle said.

Fortunately for Barry May, the FBI phone call stopped him from going deeper into debt.

“I was about to get a loan from my credit union, where I had good standing. And they said, ‘Do not do that.’”

But agents told him most of his money is gone for good.

“I got about $10,000 left to my name, and that’s it,” May said. “My quality of life, you know, the things I wanted to do, it’s shot.”

Worse, he said through tears, he is now struggling to afford medicine for his daughter, Bethany, who is disabled and lives with him.

“I lost a lot of sleep. The stress has hurt me physically. But I’ve got to move on. I mean, I got a daughter to take care of. I can’t curl up on the table. I gotta keep all the fight. That’s all I can do.”

May offered this warning:

“Just be careful,” he said. “If something is too good to be true, you know, if some beautiful young woman is interested in an older man and, ‘Oh, you do this for me, and I’ll do this for you,’ you know? Run away. Because 99.9% of the time it’s gonna be a scam. And they’re very, very, very good.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com