Chances are that you’ve gotten a “wrong number” text in the last year or two. While this looks like an innocent mistake, it’s actually the start of a long scam that has resulted in millions of lost dollars from victims.
Let’s step through what happens if you respond to a “wrong number” message so you can see through this scam and stay safe.
The “Wrong Number” Farce
The beginning of this scam almost always starts in the same way: you receive a message from a random number. Usually, these either say they don’t remember whose number this is, or ask for a person by name (“Mike, aren’t you coming to the party tomorrow?”). The hope is that you’ll respond by saying “This isn’t Mike”, at which point they tell you they made a mistake and meant to contact someone with a number almost the same as yours.
From there, the scam engages in some small talk. They ask where you’re from, usually telling you that they’re from Singapore and now living in Los Angeles. They’ll send an unprompted picture of a young Asian woman and ask you to send a picture of yourself.
After some back-and-forth, the scammer will tell you that this is their work number, and ask if you can use WhatsApp or Telegram (two popular messaging apps) instead. They want you to move to these for a few reasons: the main one is that a more experienced scammer takes over when you move to that platform. In addition, the encrypted messaging of these apps means it’s harder for authorities to crack down on scammers.
The Scam Continues
From here, the scammer will have “normal” conversations with you, asking how your day went, what you’re having to eat, and similar. As you talk, they will sprinkle in mentions of how they run their own business(es), and send fake pictures of luxury goods that show their “wealth”.
Eventually, they’ll start to mention that they have a family member who’s into business and showed them how to invest in cryptocurrency. They’ll send phony photos showing “earnings” from a crypto platform, or stock photos showing financial charts increasing.
Depending on how often you talk to the scammer and their exact process, you may talk for a few days or a few weeks before they launch into the end goal of the scam.
The official name for this “wrong number” scam is called “pig butchering”—this is a translation of a Chinese term that described it when this scam became popular in that country. It’s so-called because unlike many scams that want you to take quick, thoughtless action (such as SMS phishing), the “pig butchering” scam plays the long game.
This is not a small-time scam, either. There are leaked manuals online that these scam organizations use to train people on the most effective ways to manipulate victims.
The Fake Crypto “Investment”
The attack properly launches when they ask you to start “investing” on a platform they control. At this point, the scammer guides you to sign up for a legitimate crypto service like Coinbase, and then asks you to buy currency there. Armed with this, they send you a crypto wallet address so you can “invest” in their platform.
As you might expect, this isn’t investing at all, but is rather sending your money to a wallet that the scammer controls. They provide you with a bogus website showing your “earnings”, making it look like you’re earning big money.
Unfortunately, the scammer isn’t done after your first “investment”. They will continue to push you to invest—some victims have reported that the scammer encourages them to get a loan or borrow money from family.
The scam typically breaks down when the victim wants to withdraw a lot of their money. The scammer will claim that you need to pay a bunch of taxes and fees to withdraw, warning that you can’t use the money already in your “account” for whatever reason. At that point when the victim starts getting upset, the scammer will end up ghosting you, sometimes with a final message taunting you for the mistake.
Don’t Respond to “Wrong Number” Texts
“Pig butchering” scams have some variation, but the above setup is how they usually proceed. This scam preys on people’s good nature, but primarily takes advantage of those who are lonely. Walking through their script gives you an idea of how these people operate, so you can spot it coming.
Thankfully, it’s not difficult to avoid falling for these scams. Be extremely wary when you get a “wrong number” text—normal people don’t send a picture of themselves and ask to start a friendship when they text the wrong number. In general, you should never invest money based on what someone you met online tells you. Since this scam relies on social engineering, it’s not something that IT security tools can protect against.
The best defense against a widespread scam like this is to educate people. Be sure to tell your friends and loved ones about the true dark nature of these texts so they don’t fall into the trap.