Modern Love, Modern Blackmail

Updated: Feb 22

ML from New York City had just ended an eight-year long-distance relationship when she registered an account on Tinder. Trying to forget the pain and loss from her previous relationship, she began swiping and matched with a man who wasn't at all her type. Nevertheless, it was a matter of time before daily greetings and messages were exchanged, ultimately leading to the trading of intimate photos and videos.


What ML would soon find out was that the man was not just lusting after her, but more so for the opportunity to sextort and blackmail ML for over $100K USD.


Hindsight is always 20/20, but when you’re blind-sided by pain, trauma only finds more trauma.


I recently learned that the average marriage in the United States lasts 8.2 years. That was nearly the length of my last relationship, which ended this summer after eight years of flying around the world to see each other to maintain our perpetual long-distance tryst in the age of modern love: London, Milan, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai. Travel restrictions inevitably led to a truly COVID-era relationship casualty without the satisfaction of a real goodbye; just a text from me in New York and him in Hong Kong. Though we never actually married, there is a real sense of loss beyond love that’s more immediate when someone so constant disappears from your life that abruptly. It’s the more tragic loss of friendship; someone to talk to every day about the minutiae no one else would ever care about because that sense of care runs so deep; it’s the love of the mundane.

The week I knew I was never going to see my boyfriend again, I went onto Tinder (for the very first time) to throw myself into exactly that: to revel in the minutiae. One of the first matches I began speaking to was someone who honestly wasn’t even my type, but I was newly single and ready to have some fun. He was Chinese, good-looking, and instantly called our match “fate.” We began chatting on June 23, wherein I learned he was a wine dealer living in Washington D.C. with a beach house in Long Beach after I told him I lived in New York City. For weeks, he greeted me “good morning” and “good night” every day, as if aligning with my circadian rhythm to get even closer to me. Our conversations started out friendly, harmless, even innocent until I told him I didn’t really have an interest in dating or a relationship at the time. “Maybe we should exchange photos then,” he said, and thus began a barrage of nudes sent over Instagram and WhatsApp photos, videos, followed by requests for even longer videos, which soon escalated to the point of aggression. It was on July 4th that I blocked him on WhatsApp for the first time because he began harassing me to send him more videos, otherwise he wouldn’t come to New York.

The next day, he slid into my Instagram DM's with “let me see your vagina” (eye roll), followed by a light reference to “making cryptocurrency gains,” while inviting me to join him. After calling him out on his bulls*** (aka scam), the conversation turned dark.


“OK, then wait for me to upload your video to Instagram.”

I thought he was kidding at first, so I just played along so we could keep talking. I later realized he had been manipulating me this entire time to build a collection of compromising assets that he would later use against me, but it was already too late. The minute I downloaded his crypto trading app (called Block VC), the butchering had begun.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the scam. I was heading to Italy that week on vacation with some friends, giddy, clearly not thinking straight, and simultaneously excited/delusional to see him on my way back. I embraced peak hedonism and freedom from my ex, all while sleep-deprived, dazed, intoxicated, and on a boat half the time with bad signal, texting him day and night about the things we would do to each other when we finally met (and of course, crypto). We began with a few small trades, and I even started bragging to my friends about turning a profit with my new hobby. Though I resisted every single time, he managed to get me to transfer increments of $1,000, $20,000, $30,000, and eventually $50,000 USD through a combination of bank wire transfers and BTH/ETH on Coinbase, by means of a combination of threats to leak my nudes with sincere apologies afterward because he just cared so much about “making money together.” It all felt off, but somehow I had retained a sliver of hope about being able to take my money out because he kept promising to let me withdraw "after the next trade."

By now, I had already transferred $102,000 onto this crypto trading platform but had a “balance” of $339,174 after his assisted trades. Not so bad for a few taps on an app, albeit some uncomfortable experiences along the way. Just when I thought it would be my payout day: “May I tell you my plan?” he said. “$500,000 cryptocurrency, I will help you to buy $200,000 [worth], you buy $200,000 [worth], we will finish this month's transaction income.” By Friday. WTF.

I quickly snapped out of my stupor and turned on private investigator mode, furiously Googling everything about him and this app. I didn’t want to look, but it was time to find out the truth. All the signs were there, I just didn’t choose to see them. Why would he always make up excuses to not meet up with me? None of the photos he sent me looked like they were taken anywhere I recognized in D.C. (after all, I grew up there). How could someone who looked like that have no real online presence? I reverse image searched, only to discover that his photos were stolen from some Taiwanese influencer living in Taipei. The irony of all of this is that I work in tech. I knew I shouldn’t have downloaded an app that wasn’t available in the app store, but crypto was my blind spot. I thought, maybe that’s how the dark web works? I researched “Block VC,” but couldn’t find anything except a Chinese blockchain company with a similar name and profile on LinkedIn. But then I returned to the site where I downloaded the app, bvproglobal.com.


The search query returned this headline on a Reddit post: “Be aware of fake investment sites.


F***.

So-called "pig-butchering scam", involves one scammer patiently grooming victims from online dating/social media apps over weeks to become interested in cryptocurrency, and then convincing victims to join them in their hobby trading cryptocurrency on a supposedly new investment platform. Together with "customer service", they cajole and bully-victims into sending tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars with a series of psychological techniques and ruses.

On July 20, with a sunken feeling of terror, I filled out an IC3 report online. Not only had I lost over $100k, a scammer hiding out somewhere in Southeast Asia (therefore outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement), was still out there, blackmailing me with dozens of my nude photos and videos.


That same night, an FBI analyst called me to follow up and advised me to also file a police report with Hong Kong police, given that my money was wired to HSBC bank accounts in Hong Kong. I told them how terrified I was, with this deadline to transfer $200k coming up, and asked to speak with someone about how to deal with extortion. The next day, they connected me with a special agent on their Violent Crimes Task Force. The agent was empathetic, level-headed, and transparent. I knew my crime wasn’t violent by any means, and that they were probably dealing with kidnapping victims or murder at the same time. He assured me that these cases take a long time, but they would “never stop investigating.” I had an open line of communication with the FBI for weeks until threats began to taper off. In Hong Kong, I hired a lawyer to file a police report and investigate the connected bank accounts. Of course, the money was emptied out immediately.


The investigation continues, or so I can only assume.

He started DM'ing my friends, threatening to leak my intimate photos and videos to my Instagram followers.


From what I’ve learned from fellow victims of pig butchering scams, it’s rare to have been extorted with nudes and threatened to “invest,” as it is often done voluntarily out of trust (or greed). With my especially nefarious breed of scammer, it was done out of fear. And he also followed through on his threats. Every time I resisted, he sent me screenshots of DMs to my friends and followers (some even to my clients).


Eventually, even after I stopped talking to him, he posted my nudes to his own Instagram account with thousands of bought followers to get my attention.

With the help of a friend who works at Instagram, his account was quickly reported and removed, only to pop up again days and sometimes even weeks later, with a new number or username.


That triggering feeling was always present. He could always find me.

He then threatened to find my parents, as well as their friends and colleagues, and send intimate photos and videos to them as well.


On September 1, almost three months since our fateful Tinder match and more than a month since I found out about the scam and cut off all communication, I was messaged by an unknown number: “I see you’re online, and I won’t ask you to do anything. We can talk calmly and peacefully.” Disregarding all counsel to just ignore him, from the FBI, Hong Kong police, and my lawyer, I finally confronted him. I had to do it, otherwise, he would be looming around on every corner of the internet, forever. I told him I knew all about the scam and to leave me alone. He denied it of course, so I blocked him one last time. It felt great. Cathartic.


It was finally over.

In the days after, I thought about how I should’ve executed my final interaction with him more strategically: captured his IP address, found ways to psychologically manipulate him back to get more information, like I did with those 50+ other scammers I obsessively baited out of revenge on dating apps thereafter, all operating from the same playbook.


But it was time to move on.

There are few people in my life I’ve had the courage and trust to share this story with: my therapist and two close friends—certainly fewer than the number of people who have seen my nudes at this point (counting: the scammer, the scammer’s colony, the FBI, Hong Kong police, my lawyer, Instagram, and the countless viewers of who knows however many porn sites).


Often with loss, they say it’s “incalculable.” In my case, it was exactly $102,000.


It was the cost of my dignity at a moment of extreme emotional vulnerability, the consequence of an attempt to cheat the feeling of loneliness.


A break-up tax, if you will.


Who was I kidding? Freedom isn’t free.



-- ML