China Unleashes Crackdown on ‘Pig Butchering.’ (It Isn’t What You Think.)
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China Unleashes Crackdown on ‘Pig Butchering.’ (It Isn’t What You Think.)

Beijing is going after scam mills that operate out of secretive, dystopian compounds and swindle people worldwide

Mon, Nov 6, 2023 8:29amGrey Clock 4 min

It’s called “pig butchering.”

Armies of scammers operating from lawless corners of Southeast Asia—often controlled by Chinese crime bosses—connect with people all over the world through online messages. They foster elaborate, sometimes romantic, relationships, and then coax their targets into making bogus investments. Over time, they make it appear that the investments are growing to get victims to send more money. Then, they disappear.

In recent months, China has unleashed its most aggressive effort to crack down on the proliferation of the scam mills, reaching beyond its territory and netting thousands of people in mass arrests. Its main target is a notorious stretch of its border with Myanmar controlled by narcotics traffickers and warlords.

For decades, frontier fiefdoms such as those in Myanmar have been havens for gambling and trafficking of everything from drugs to wildlife to people. Now, they are dens for pig-butchering operations.

The scammers operate out of secretive, dystopian compounds, many of which are run by Chinese fugitives who fled their country to places where it was easier to flout the law. They cheat Chinese citizens out of billions of dollars each year, as well as victims across the globe. The U.S. Treasury Department in September warned Americans about the scams.

In addition to remote hillside towns in Myanmar, these heavily guarded enclaves are also found in gambling hubs such as Cambodia’s Sihanoukville and Poipet. Cambodian authorities have carried out sporadic raids with China’s help, but the problem has persisted.

For Beijing, it is a significant source of embarrassment that Chinese criminals are at the centre of scams ensnaring people the world over, said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director for the United States Institute of Peace, an independent research organisation founded by the U.S. Congress that specialises in conflict mitigation.

China is “quite sensitive to the narratives that could potentially emerge,” he said. “These are largely Chinese crime groups which China, for years, did very little to check.”

The operations flourished during the Covid-19 pandemic when border trade stopped and internet use surged. They have also fuelled a human-trafficking crisis.

Many of the scammers entrapping people are themselves victims of human trafficking, lured abroad by fake job ads and held captive by withholding pay and passports. The United Nations human-rights office says more than 120,000 people may be forced to work as scammers in Myanmar, with another 100,000 in Cambodia.

One Malaysian trafficking victim told The Wall Street Journal that he was trained to spend weeks or months “fattening” his victims by gaining their trust before “butchering” them. His story was similar to those told by others lured into working in the scam mills. After responding to an ad on a job-recruitment website, he said he accepted an offer for a customer-service role in Cambodia. Once there, he was driven to a prison-like complex in Sihanoukville and forced to work as a scammer under threats of violence.

He said he had a handler who trained him, supplying him with a smartphone preloaded with fake social-media accounts, a “victim list” containing contact information of potential targets and various scripts designed to break the ice and build their trust. After several weeks, he said he convinced a driver who brought people and supplies to the compound to help him escape.

Regional migration researchers have documented trafficking from dozens of countries. Many victims come from Southeast Asia but some from as far as Brazil and Kenya.

“China is starting to signal that enough is enough,” said Inshik Sim, a Bangkok-based lead analyst for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s regional operations.

In August, China launched a “special joint operation” with three nearby countries and increased pressure on armed groups that oversee remote parts of Myanmar, convincing them to hunt down, round up and repatriate almost 5,000 Chinese nationals suspected of illicit activity.

Chinese authorities have zeroed in on several border areas that are part of Myanmar but are fully controlled by armed groups. These places have often drawn large investments from Chinese nationals—both legal and illicit. Many Chinese people, including notorious fugitives, live in these enclaves, where the Mandarin language and Chinese currency are commonplace.

The Wa Self-Administered Division, located along China’s southwestern border, is of particular interest to China, in part because Beijing has so much leverage over it. The area is home to the ethnic minority Wa people, who claim the territory as their ancestral home. China has been the group’s main benefactor for decades; historians say they helped the Chinese Communist Party flush out enemies who fled across the border in the 1950s and ’60s. The area later became a major economic gateway to resource-rich Myanmar.

Independent researchers say its de facto leadership, the United Wa State Army, commands a force of more than 20,000 people armed with modern Chinese equipment such as portable surface-to-air missiles and armoured vehicles.

The area has been a major source of opium for almost two centuries, and in recent decades has become a leading producer of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine. The U.S. Treasury blacklisted the UWSA in 2003 under the Kingpin Act, and has sanctioned dozens of people and businesses linked to the group, calling it “the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organisation in Southeast Asia.”

The UWSA and other criminal networks have increasingly turned to scamming in addition to the drug trade.

According to a 2022 report in Chinese state media, authorities blocked 2.1 million fraudulent websites and some $51.6 billion in suspicious transactions over the previous year. Beijing has warned citizens to look out for dubious rebate offers, investment schemes and unsolicited contact from anyone claiming to represent a company or law enforcement.

The first sign of a serious cleanup came in early September, when China worked with the UWSA to orchestrate two days of raids that ended with more than 1,000 suspects being marched across the border into Chinese custody. Then China upped the ante, taking aim at the group’s leadership.

On Oct. 12, China’s Ministry of Public Security said arrest warrants had been issued for two senior Wa officials accused of leading scam networks: the state’s construction minister Chen Yanban and a mayor named Xiao Yankui. Four days later, the UWSA said both had been stripped of their roles. Their whereabouts is unknown.

The same day, Chinese authorities said they had transferred 2,349 “telecommunication fraud” suspects from Myanmar two days prior—the single largest such handover. China says 4,666 suspects have been repatriated from Myanmar since the crackdown began earlier this year.

“This is by any measure a major operation, which speaks to the impact on China and Chinese citizens, and the seriousness with which Beijing is approaching this,” said Richard Horsey, senior adviser on Myanmar for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank specializing in conflict prevention.

While China may be turning up the heat on cybercriminals along its border, experts say scamming is so lucrative that the ringleaders are likely to simply look for more fertile ground—areas in weak states where law enforcement is lax.

“These groups are not going to go away easily,” said Tower, of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “They’re sitting on a massive source of capital and there are many fragile places in the world that they’ll be able to exploit.”


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What Your Friends Can Teach You About Money

Millennials and Gen Z are turning to peers instead of professionals for financial advice. They don’t trust banks, and they are tired of information overload.

Sun, Dec 10, 2023 5 min

Colin Saint-Vil got his money education at the dim sum cart, over a steamy plate of pork buns and turnip cake.

A friend offered to pick up the whole tab on her credit card, “for the points.” At the time, six years ago, “for the points” meant nothing to Saint-Vil, now a 30-year-old planning manager in Brooklyn, so he pressed for more details. They lingered over the dim sum meal as a larger conversation unfolded about annual percentage rates, credit-card debt, payment schedules and more.

Millennials and members of Gen Z prefer to seek financial advice from each other than from parents or from financial professionals. They don’t like overwhelming spreadsheets and marketing material written in seemingly foreign languages. They don’t trust big banks and institutions trying to sell them on investment strategies—as many were raised around the late 2000s financial-crisis. And, they are not wrong: There is a lot to be learned from comparing numbers with peers—from sharing salaries to talking out big decisions like home or car purchases.

Saint-Vil said when his father was his age, he had already begun investing in real estate, but with property prices now so high and mortgage rates only just beginning to fall, he said he couldn’t imagine being able to follow in his father’s footsteps. He, like many millennials and Gen Z-ers, describe their finances as “fairly good” these days, though they hold a negative picture of the greater economy, according to a new poll of 18 to 29-year-olds from the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School.

Millennials are still reeling from the impact of back-to-back recessions, all while large bank closures and investing scams dominate the headlines. Younger people report a feeling of “financial avoidance” exacerbated by high inflation and the pandemic-era budgeting.

As of June 2023, Gallup polling revealed a historically low faith in U.S. institutions, with younger generations voicing high skepticism. According to Gallup, only 9% of respondents aged 18 to 34 expressed “a great deal” of confidence in banks; meanwhile, 47% and 28% said they have “some” or “very little,” respectively.

But when it comes to winning back young consumers, these same financial institutions haven’t quite given up, and are rolling out new outreach programs and robo advisors, some of which have helped bridge a connection with Gen Z and millennials, said Keith Niedermeier, clinical professor of marketing at Indiana University. But many young people still say they prefer do-it-yourself investing platforms like Robinhood and Acorns over traditional advisers at more established wealth-management firms.

Andrew Ragusa, a real-estate broker based on Long Island, blamed the twin problems of low housing inventory and high home prices for postponing younger buyers’ ownership. The median age of a first-time home buyer in the U.S. is 35-years old as of 2023, according to data from the National Association of Realtors. That is slightly down from an record high of 36 in 2022, but still two years older than the median age in 2021, which is representative of an ageing first-time buyer trend.

When he talks with younger clients now, he detects a gloomy sentiment. “They try to be optimistic, but the overall sentiment is ‘This is supposed to be the American dream: we get a house and we get some financial security and I just have to have faith it will all work out in the end.’ But they don’t have faith it will.”

Fear and shame around being able to buy or accomplish as much as one’s parents might have financially can crop up when millennials talk to elders about their financial frustrations, said Jodi Kaus, director of Kansas State University’s student financial planning centre, Powercat Financial. She’s found that lessons and advice from friends are often more constructive.

Kaus leads a peer-to-peer financial planning centre that pairs up students to work through financial issues. She works to pair people with similar backgrounds: graduate students with graduate students or international students with international students. Talking with someone only a few years removed from your current situation means you’re better able to internalize the messages and execute on their advice, Kaus said.

“Early on, parents even say ‘Are you sure students can help my child?’” she said. “And I say ‘I am more than confident that they can help each other.’

Sharing money tips and financial know-how with your friends doesn’t only benefit the asker, Kaus said. In the Kansas State University peer-to-peer group, the advice giver also learns a lot from their own position, because sharing their story and bonding with a peer helps them to build their own confidence and belief in their financial acumen.

Lindsay Clark, a 34-year-old director of external affairs in Washington, D.C., recalls one lesson she shared with a friend carrying student loans from pharmacy school. Clark works at Savi, a student loan platform, and she offered to cook her friend dinner while they sorted through his loan repayment options. Long after they’d cleaned their dinner plates, they sat together at Clark’s kitchen island, lingering over a plate of homemade hummus and chatting about everything from financial goals to Costco card benefits.

“Those conversations blossom from the transparency, and the visibility makes both people feel really good,” she said. “That creates better relationships overall.”

When you’re talking about money issues with friends, Clark said, you’re not artificially inflating your salary or pretending to know more than you do. And most important, you’re not worried about their ulterior motives.

“You feel safe in that conversation, knowing their intentions are good and they’re not trying to make money off of you,” she said. “And that’s going to lead to better results, because we’re working with the reality here.”

Skepticism of pronounced experts and criticism of established financial institutions is especially common among millennials and Gen Z, Neidermeier said. Studies show people across generations are much likelier to take a friend or colleague’s recommendation to heart over that of a faceless institution, he said; people who spend time on social media just have a greater opportunity to source those answers and field questions.

“What people say to each other over the picket fence is what is the most influential,” he said.

At a certain point, however, talking solely to friends and peers for your financial lessons can be very limiting, said Sarah Behr, founder of Simplify Financial Planning in San Francisco. Relying on your social circle can also put a strain on those relationships; no one wants to be responsible for your disappointment when a financial decision that worked out well for them doesn’t fit as well in your own life.

Behr recommends tuning into your own emotional reactions when assessing peer advice: does the road map they followed align with your own financial values? Does it put pressure on you to live outside your means or challenge your personal risk tolerance? If the answer doesn’t feel clear, that could be a time to outsource to a financial professional who has no emotional connection to you or your financial status.

“‘People have been telling me do this, but I just don’t know if it’s the right thing for me’—I get a lot of calls like that,” said Behr.

Saint-Vil said he and his friends share tips on what high-yield savings accounts offer the best rates, and when he did his credit card research, he chose a card recommended by a friend. When it comes time to work with a financial adviser or even one day a wealth manager, he’ll likely work with someone recommended through a peer. Behr said close to 90% of her business comes by way of client referrals.

Since that first conversation over dim sum, Saint-Vil has thrown his own card onto the table at meals and shared his knowledge with other pals who look confused.

“I have a real wide range of friends who are in many different financial places, but I would say a rising tide lifts all ships,” he said.

Julia Carpenter is the co-author, with Bourree Lam, of The Wall Street Journal’s “The New Rules of Money: A Playbook for Planning Your Financial Future,” a personal-finance workbook published this week by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.


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