A retired insurance adjuster in Mississippi lost the bulk of his life savings—to the tune of $500,000. A Boston man watched over $300,000 of his hard-earned money disappear into thin air. In Brooklyn, several people were swindled out of at least $5 million dollars.  

What do these stories have in common? All these victims were lured in by seemingly innocent conversations with strangers online. And in the end, each unknowingly fell prey to a financial investment scheme commonly known as a “pig butchering” scam.

What is a 'pig butchering scam'?

A pig butchering scam is a type of financial crime that often targets older adults online. Scammers combine elements of investment fraud and romance scams to con people out of large sums of money over an extended period of time.

Why does this investment scam have such an unpleasant name? It’s because after a few opportunities of gaining trust with an older adult and small-dollar amounts being exchanged over the course of a relationship being built, the scammer will go for ‘the whole hog’. That hog, or pig, means they've successfully convinced a victim to invest a large chunk of their savings. In case you didn't know what that idiom means, 'the whole hog' refers to doing something in a thorough, complete, or unreserved way. Simply put: Scammers will throw every they've got in their arsenal to exploit victims, and it's become a billion-dollar industry.

In 2022, investment scams like these were the costliest scheme reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Related complaints jumped from $3.31 billion in 2022 to $4.57 billion in 2023—a 38% increase. Most internet fraud complaints overall were filed by adults age 60+, with losses in that group totaling $3.4 billion.1

How does this type of online scam work?

With this investment scam tactic, criminals initiate cold contact through social media, dating apps, phone calls, or text message. Using a script, they play the long game as they work on building a rapport with their intended target. This may take the form of a friendship or a budding romance. Often, these scammers have a fake online profile accompanied by an attractive photo of themselves (likely stolen from someone else) and images that suggest a lavish lifestyle.

Once trust is established, the scammer often persuades the person to send an online payment or invest in cryptocurrency claiming they have received large returns on their own investments. (Cryptocurrency is like digital money made secure using special codes. Instead of coins or bills you can hold, it's all online.) Investment fraud with a reference to cryptocurrency rose from $2.57 billion in 2022 to $3.96 billion in 2023—an increase of 53%—according to IC3.1

Typically, perpetrators of pig butchering scams send the potential investor to an authentic-looking financial app or website, where they may perform simulated trades in a bogus account that appears to be earning money. Convinced the platform is legitimate, and tempted by the idea of future gains, the victim of this investment scam continues to sink money into the fake investment.

In some cases, online scammers build credibility with their targets by allowing them to make small withdrawals from their sham trading account. However, requests for larger withdrawals are usually denied, or the investor is asked to pay a hefty fee to release their funds.

Eventually, when the person being scammed has no money left to invest, the investment scammer they thought was a trusted friend or partner vanishes—along with all their invested cash and “earnings.”

“These types of scammers go after the most vulnerable people in our society," said Genevieve Waterman, Director of Corporate Partnerships and Engagement at NCOA.

Older adults are common online scam targets, since they are more likely to live alone and be isolated from family and friends," Waterman said.

What are the red flags for pig butchering scams?

Knowing the warning signs of an investment scam can help you spot con artists quickly and steer clear of their game.

Below are common red flags for financial investment scams:

  1. You receive a message out of the blue from someone you do not know.
  2. A message sender appears to be mistaking you for someone else, e.g.: Is this Nancy? It was nice meeting you at the bookstore the other night. (Only your name is Pat, and you haven't recently been to a bookstore.)
  3. Someone you meet on a dating app seems overly eager to chat with you and wants to move the "relationship" along very quickly.  
  4. In their online profile picture, or in a photo they send you, the new person you’re talking to online looks like a professional model.
  5. You make a virtual friend who almost immediately begins talking about impressive gains they've made with cryptocurrency. They may claim to have insider knowledge and can help you make a guaranteed profit.
  6. You’re talking to someone who asks you to move the conversation to WhatsApp, Telegram, or another type of messaging app.
  7. A friend you meet online refuses to engage in any type of video calling with you.
  8. A person you're chatting with online asks a lot of questions about your personal life and financial situation.
  9. You're invited by a new online friend to invest in specific financial products.

How do I protect myself from financial investment scams?

Dishonest scammers are everywhere—and their tactics are getting more and more sophisticated by the day. But with a few smart online habits, you can stay one step ahead of their schemes.

We’ve outlined a few below:

  • Limit the details you share online: Oversharing on your social media pages and with virtual friends can give scammers the opportunity to target you. They use these public personal details to develop a long-term friendship with you and persuade you to share more sensitive information about your life and finances.
  • Never send money to anyone you meet online: Scammers may ask you to send money to pay for their trip to visit you. If this happens to you, stop speaking with that person immediately.
  • Don’t talk about your investments or financial status: Avoid giving your banking information, Social Security number, or other personal data to people you meet online—or to a website you cannot verify.
  • Don’t invest in or trade with companies recommended by a virtual friend: Scammers will often entice their “friends” to consider investing in a certain financial institution. If this happens to you, do not transfer cryptocurrency or share your bank details or brokerage account. You should be especially wary of anyone who claims to offer “exclusive” investment opportunities that must be acted on quickly. Lastly, remind yourself (and the older people you care for) that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Any investment opportunity that promises handsome returns with minimal risk is most likely a scam.

“These financial scams can have truly devastating consequences for older adults,” Waterman said. “Not only do they lead to monetary losses; they can bring heartache when someone realizes the person they have gotten close to—and maybe even thought they were in love with—is a fraud. Taking a few basic precautions can help you protect yourself, and your bank account.”

This content on online scams was developed in partnership with Zelle®. Zelle® and the Zelle® related marks are property of Early Warning Services, LLC.


1. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Internet Crime Report 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2023_IC3Report.pdf