Updated: Feb 22
Lillian, 30's, had a favorite pastime -- baking -- which she shared with the world via her Instagram page. While she often received friend requests and direct messages from strangers, she never accepted or replied to any of them, until one beautiful Sunday in May.
On Mother's Day this year, I received a friend request on my private Instagram account from a user named lijunceng88888, clearly a Chinese username, given how many 8's there were in a row. "May I take the liberty to ask what country you are from?" a certain Junchen Li (李俊晨) politely wrote in Chinese. After replying that I was in the US, he said, "I'm also in the US, in San Francisco, and you?"
After exchanging a number of messages about desserts (he apparently "only" made macarons and tiramisu, but thought his oven wasn't calibrated, and often had to dispose of the burnt macarons), he asked if he could add me on WhatsApp, "in case I have questions about baking, also I cannot use Instagram on my work phone". This sounded to me like the world's lamest excuse to get a girl's phone number, but somehow, I appreciated him trying anyway, and so I gave it to him.
I never thought that such a decision would have been so fateful.
After a perfunctory "hello" on WhatsApp, he didn't say anything else to me until the next day, at my 8pm (and his 5pm), when most people are off from work, but I had another late night at work. "Are you off from work yet? What are you making for dinner?"
And so I began to chat with this person day and night, although during our work hours, we tried to limit our conversations to just checking up on each other and making sure we actually ate our meals, despite both of our hectic work schedules. He was working remotely still (as, at the time, I knew many in the SF Bay Area still were), and we would complain about our Zoom meetings (when we started or finished our Zoom meetings, we would let the other person know, just to make sure we didn't disturb each other), how we would rather work more hours than sit through one boring meeting; we shared stories about our pets (his Shiba Inu would chew through furniture, knock over and destroy his Japanese ceramic tea set, and would lie on the ground mid-way into going out for a walk, forcing Junchen to carry him back in his arms), and after getting off from work, he would relax on his sofa, often with a glass of soy milk in hand, and chat with me. On occasion, he would go running for two miles, although the photo of his Apple watch revealed that his mile-time was closer to walking; in fact, I couldn't believe someone could run so slowly but still not feel ashamed to send a photo of their distance breakdown to anyone.
The lunar eclipse on May 26, 2021 resulted in a blood moon that was only visible on the west coast. Because I couldn't view it from where I lived, Junchen woke up in the middle of the night to take this (blurry) photo for me on his phone camera.
Unlike the stereotypical Pig-Butchering Scams of "Hey, look at me, I'm a successful entrepreneur, I own my own company", I got a software engineer who was two years younger than me -- a "cog in the wheel" at a growing startup in fintech, who had left China four years ago, but still had sometimes incomprehensible English, which wasn’t helped by the fact that all his friends were Chinese, he consumed only Chinese media, and lived a relatively solitary life ("我是一个善于Be alone的人，所以在处理很多关系上面我并不是做的很好", he said. "I am a person who is good at be[ing] alone, so I am not very good at dealing with many relationships."
It was the perfect ruse for executing the kill.
Becoming a marionette, or, Why this scam is effective
I think it's very difficult for people who haven't experienced this scam to understand how insidious it is. It's not a technologically sophisticated scam by any means, the interface of the websites for the fraudulent investment platforms is rarely slick and clean, but that’s because it doesn’t need to be: the scam hinges itself predominantly upon skillful emotional manipulation and blackmail.
When someone likable chats with you day and night about common hobbies and topics, it feels like you have known that person much longer than you actually have, and you begin to feel like you are both building shared experiences, despite being thousands of miles away. There is witty banter, an exchange of ideas, and feeling more uninhibited about sharing more personal or private thoughts. "I had to go to my aunt and uncle's house for my aunt's birthday party last night," Junchen once lamented. "I was so bored, but I had to stay until 1AM. I would've dozed off if there weren't someone my age there. I know my relatives mean well, but they keep asking me when I'm going to get married; I really don't want to go back there". It is by these shrewd mechanisms that all of these feelings are reciprocated, a byproduct of which is the inevitable building of TRUST.
Over the July 4th weekend, Junchen and his friends went hiking at a state park in California. Where'd they go? He only gave a vague answer when asked. The evasiveness was because he probably wasn't sure where this photo was taken; it was likely stolen from social media or purchased.
The heart wants want it wants, or else it does not care
One night, I got back from work late and ritually messaged Junchen to let him know that I got home; I then asked him if he was hungry. "I have no appetite," he tersely replied.
"Why aren't you hungry? Did you not go running today?"
"No, I didn't go running, I feel that my mind is not on exercise", he said.
"Maybe you should eat something light at least? What's the matter?"
"Nothing”, he said curtly. “What time is it where you are?"
"It's almost midnight."
"Aren't you tired?"
"No, never!" I laughed.
Junchen, a normally even-tempered person, launched into a flight of irritation.
"But every day you're so tired, you need to rest and take care of yourself!"
"Okay, I will, but I feel there's something the matter."
"Nothing is the matter, it's just that I couldn't control my emotions."
I replied and got no response. "You can speak frankly and take your time to reply", I wrote. I tried to crack a joke. An hour then passed. Then another hour. I started worrying.
"Hey, it's okay if you need to ignore me, but please at least tell me you're okay?"
I finally received a reply. It was in English.
"I'm not feeling well today, so I didn't reply to your message. Forgive me, I know I can't do this. I drank a little wine and now I want to sleep", followed by a message in Chinese, "You should also sleep early, Xin-yi," referring to me by my Chinese name.
I reluctantly said goodnight and feared what would happen next, but had no idea the extent to which I ought to have feared.
Confessions of a Gold Medalist Pig Butcherer
"Good morning, Xin-yi!" he chirped.
I was surprised at this enthusiastic reply and asked him how he was feeling. Since he had previously admitted that he had no alcohol tolerance, just like me, I was worried he was hungover.
"Don't worry, nothing is the matter. I don't know what's been wrong with me recently, I haven't been in a good state, and I don't know where my mind has been. It may be that these recent things have made me helpless."
And so, we discussed all our feelings. How we felt that we had these common hobbies. How we found each other agreeable. How we had some simple, similar goals in life -- to take care of our families, do our jobs well, to cherish those around us -- and how we each felt that we had some resonance, and that we felt comfortable being each other's confidants.
I think it's hard to comprehend why after three or so weeks, someone would feel that they resonate with someone thousands of miles away that they only talk to about "daily life" sort of topics (in fact, we rarely, if ever, broached "deep" conversation topics), but I think there are a few things to keep in mind.
One of these is that this person accompanies you throughout the day; every former lonely moment is occupied by this person, and when you share bits and pieces of your daily life with someone in that way, it creates the illusion that you are actually experiencing these things together.
Secondarily, it isn't uncommon that members of the Chinese diaspora community for seemingly inexplicable reasons desire validation and acceptance from those of the "motherland". One can always invoke the "perpetual foreigner" feeling of the Chinese diaspora community, but I don't think that's the only reason: I believe there are some aspects of Chinese culture that we often associate with home, childhood, and goodness overall, and so we search for glimmers of that in other ethnically Chinese people.
After these confessions, despite enjoying each other's company so much, and for reasons that I will elide over, we agreed that we couldn't be together. I was tearful; he was distressed.
"I wish I could have met you earlier," he said. "If things were different, I would already be by your side right now. But let us at least accompany each other in this way." I agreed, and we promised each other that we would do our best to take care of each other and understand each other, in the limited, WhatsApp-based way in which only we knew how.
"And because we cannot be together," Junchen carefully slipped in, "please allow me to do the one good thing that I can do for you."
Because cooking and baking was our treasured common hobby, 90% of the photos exchanged were of food.
Enter Crypto, stage left
Junchen had already been trying to look into a certain New Zealand-based Chinese cryptocurrency exchange, but I had resisted: the US had somewhat recently ended the ban on WeChat, and the cryptocurrency exchange app he recommended was jank AF. The permissions were sketch AF (why did it need access to my files all the time), and registering an account required a scanned copy of either my driver's license or passport, neither of which I was willing to do.
We had already fought several times about doing this. We would fight one last time.
"I don't want to use this exchange, Junchen, please don't force me."
He grew irate. "I am not forcing you, I am not capable of forcing you, but I don't understand why you won't do this. Don't you understand that this is the one good thing I can do for you, to make your life better?"
"I am happy with you accompanying me every day, that is already meaningful to me", I replied honestly.
"I want to give you something more than that. I want to do you good, to take care of you in the one way I can. Please allow me," he asserted.
And so began a argument that lasted throughout the day, one so fiery and passionate that I was forced to retreat to the restroom to wipe away hot tears.
"Fine, if you don't want to use the site, at least send me $5,000 via Coinbase. I'll show you how I invest the money, and I'll send it back to you with the returns I get."
Hash functions and the Kelly criterion, says Junchen. He spent his evenings looking at candlestick charts, analyzing nodes, and making investments, so he said.
Paradoxically, I didn't trust him entirely, but I also didn't understand why he was so insistent. I didn't care about money (let's be real, I didn't pick my low-paying job for the money) and he knew that: he had even said that was the reason why he liked me so much. There was an intense, emotional back-and-forth in the attempt to clarify why I should transfer $5,000 to him.
It exploded into an argument about trust.
"You have no idea how hurtful it is to hear what you have said, you have no idea about my past; I never imagined my trust and this friendship, this relationship, was worth less than $5,000", he clamored.
"None of my friends have ever asked me to do such a thing. It doesn't make sense," I argued.
"Oh, so now I am being compared to other people? I knew you wouldn't change your mind. Okay, goodbye", he said in a flurry.
Heartbroken, I sent him a Chinese poem, left my phone on my office desk, and tearfully walked away. I thought it was the end.
Au contraire, it was just the beginning.
The Moon and Six Bitcoin
I thought to myself hours later, after getting home from work, "What was the worst that would happen if I sent him $5,000 via Coinbase? Sure, I'd lose about six weeks of pay, but this friendship did seem to be worth more than $5,000, right? And my job is more or less stable, so maybe I ought to take this chance."
And so, in a message couched steeped in emotion and anguish, I told him I would send him the money, if only just to "prove that, yet again in my life, I would be caring about someone who did not deserve my care."
He received the money and was shocked. "Oh, you really did send it, so you do trust me after all. You don't know how happy this makes me -- you really trust me!"
"Yes," I told him, "And I hope you're very happy, because this time, your joy is subtracted from my own."
"No, it shouldn't be that way, Xin-yi, I'm sorry, but I am so glad you trust me. You have no idea about my past."
At this point, I didn't care about his past. My heart felt like it was shattered; every part of my body that could sense, was throbbing in pain. I fired off some more messages before retiring for the night, although I couldn't sleep until the sun had already risen.
Over the next few days, we finally repaired our relationship; Junchen alluded to the trust issues of his previous long-term relationship, and apologized profusely for all the hurt and confusion that had arisen. And a few days later, he sent me my initial transferred money as well as the additional returns he had made: it was about $6,200.
"Not bad!" I remarked.
"Honestly, the market hasn't been great, so this ought to have been higher. But maybe we can do this together next time -- it can be one of our additional common hobbies."
"But I told you, I don't care about money."
And so, another argument came up about how I didn't want to use this fraudulent platform, even after all the trust issues had been repaired.
"I really don't understand why you are pushing me to do this. Can you clearly explain your reasoning?"
"Yes, to put it bluntly," he began, "If we do this together, it will be like how when we look at the same moon, we will feel that we are not so far away from each other."
The idea of two people staring at the same investment platform, on their respective laptops, making the same orders, and feeling that they were together, felt somewhere between maudlin ridiculousness and bizarre inanity. But then I recalled my gamer friends hanging out by playing WoW together. Suddenly, this didn't seem so far-fetched.
"Junchen, you're very smart, you knew I would fall for this if you said it," I coyly replied.
"You are also very smart," he said.
But certainly, in the end, it was clear Junchen was much smarter.
Binary options trading on MACOOFX. I don't pretend to understand what is going on here. I never got a satisfactory answer from Junchen.
Curiosity is an inherent part of human nature; it's not necessarily greed that drove me to buy ETH, then BTC, then more ETH bit by bit, but rather some interest in seeing how well this investment stuff could turn out.
Over time, the returns were steady -- sometimes they were a bit low, but at least they were in the positive -- and then I began to plan in my mind what I would do with the money. My parents were struggling, and I thought that finally I could help them out, be a responsible adult and take care of them in their age; I thought about my aging, adopted cats, who had chronic conditions and required some expensive food and medicine to ensure that they were well; I thought about how I had always wanted to be more generous to others, and now I had to opportunity to treat friends and family out for dinner, without having to worry that it would break the bank.
Two months after talking to Junchen, my entire savings was in the MACOOFX account. It was about five years of post-tax salary.
"I think now we should invest more," Junchen coolly said. "We need $300K more."
Junchen had never been good at explaining his reasoning for doing things, no matter how much I pressed him, regardless of whether he responded in Chinese or English, so I reasoned to myself that this somehow was related to the calculations he was performing to weigh the risks of investment, and it seemed like he was making the same exact trade each time, I thought he just wanted to coordinate our initial investments at the beginning of each trade, just to make the math easier. (Although I constantly asked him why he needed to do all this math by hand -- why couldn't he just write a script for it? After all, wasn’t he a software engineer? His response: "I need to integrate the data in real-time." That answer seemed irrelevant, but I got no other answers.)
And so, Junchen asked me to borrow from friends and family. I told him that wasn't possible, I was unwilling to do that. "Just tell them a white lie, you can get them gifts later." This was incomprehensible to me: I found it against my code of ethics to do it, and told him so. I also thought better of Junchen, thinking he would have never said something like this previously. We began to argue about right and wrong, every single day. Finally, he left me to my own devices to search for a way to secure these funds, and I phoned several loan companies, applying for loans, which luckily were all denied.
Two weeks later, Junchen was frustrated. I was frustrated, too -- all we talked about was this loan and this investment. How did all the other common hobbies and topics fall to the wayside? Additionally, I had noticed that he was spending time on WhatsApp more (his status would often be "online"), and yet he wasn't talking to me.
Part of me was happy for him: while he stubbornly said that I would be the only one in his heart and that there was no way I could change this, I didn't want him to be attached to me in this eternal long-distance relationship. ("The pandemic is almost over; you are not shackled to me. You are young, you ought to be free, and you're also a son," I urged him, invoking the paternalism of Chinese culture and the need for his parents to have a grandson, or at least grandchild. "You need to go out and have fun, do you understand what I mean?" These words upset him; he wouldn't budge and made me promise not to mention this topic again.)
Things finally came to a head when he said, "You have already wasted one week." I was shocked -- this wasn't a tone that Junchen would usually say. Why was he so insistent on obtaining this loan?
The alarms sounded; something was wrong.
I pried him and found a different answer: "No, this is not for me, it's not for calculating the trade. It is for yourself. Do it for your own economic freedom. Don't you think one day you will be in economic hardship?"
Looking back, those words were so ironic.
I didn't know who to confide in about this issue to serve as a sounding board. I didn't want to get a loan, and in fact, I had no way of obtaining a loan. And so, I asked the one other friend I knew who traded crypto, someone with whom I had two common friends on LinkedIn, both of whom were Chinese nationals from my old job.
Who had added me randomly after messaging me on LinkedIn, saying my resume looked promising. And whose profile was promptly deleted after I gave him my WhatsApp contact information.
Yes, this person was a scammer; I just didn't know it at the time.
"志斌 [Zhibin], I need to ask you a weird question. You may be the only person in the world who I can ask this to. I have a friend who wants me to apply for a loan for trading crypto."
"Is this a real friend?", he insightfully insinuated.
"You're too smart," I laughed. And so, I told him all the details.
"How much money do you have right now?", he asked. I bluntly told him.
"No, I meant how much money do you have in your hand right now?" he clarified.
"I had to keep a minimum balance in my bank accounts to avoid a fee," I regretfully replied.
He took some minutes to reply and then said, "I'm sorry to tell you, but you have invested in a black platform." It was the Chinese term for the fraudulent investment platforms, a black hole for money, entering deep into the chasm of the scammers' pockets. "You ought to try to withdraw your funds now, but I don't think you'll be able to."
My heart sank. I never imagined that I wouldn't be able to withdraw my funds, if anything, I thought I would just lose a little bit of money.
And so, I attempted to withdraw the money. It didn't work.
I contacted customer service. My withdrawal was denied for spurious reasons.
MACOOFX had a very prompt customer service. I forgot to screenshot the part when they wished me a pleasant life, knowing I wouldn't be able to pay the tax.
It was clear that customer service wanted bail money. I immediately Googled "MACOOFX" to see if there was any news: finally, Google had indexed some results, a complaint from a young woman on a Chinese forum.
Who had met a guy on Instagram.
Who had also seemed to enter a relationship with him.
And who also couldn't withdraw her money and was asked to pay a "tax" that couldn't be deducted from the account itself.
I told Zhibin and sent him the links to the complaints.
"The news is out," he said, matter-of-factly. "It's time for you to wake up."
On that day, everything became crystal clear. Suddenly, all of the things that didn't add up finally made sense.
Like the time Junchen couldn't remember what day of the week it was (pig-butchering scammers are underslept and located in Southeast Asia).
Or when he was confused about "PDT" (Pacific Daylight Time; but he was in San Francisco, no?).
Or when I thought his tone and punctuation would change midway into the conversation (the fraudsters operate in a team, and they copy their answers -- financial-related or romantically-related -- from a playbook).
Or when he would alternate between dull and lucid responses.
Or how he didn't mind just "accompanying [me] in this way forever", despite being in his early 30's. (Hopeless romantics exist, but it seemed too good to be true that I landed one.)
Or when he stopped replying much to my messages (he had found other women to scam; weeks after I confronted him, he habitually wished me good night, but in his haste, accidentally called me "美嫻 (Mei Xian)", presumably the Chinese name of one of his different victims).
All of these things were inexplicable until that day. And the financial hit, while immense and traumatic, was only compounded by my need to confront the reality that there was no singular person named Junchen Li: he was an elaborate scheme, an entity, a plan. One that I consumed hook, line, and sinker, and with gusto. And he was run by a cunning team of schemers, acting in a hunting pack, carefully studying their prey before attacking.
Perhaps the most hurtful thing was realizing that not only was the investment a simulation, but that someone I cared for deeply was, in fact, a mirage all along.