Google has filed a lawsuit against two alleged cryptocurrency scammers who it said uploaded 87 different fraudulent apps and carried out other activities in the pursuit of romance scams that have affected more than 100,000 people.

The developers, based in mainland China and Hong Kong, allegedly uploaded 87 apps that were downloaded by more than 100,000 people and defrauded targets of sums up to tens of thousands of dollars.

Apps uploaded by the pair and associates have targeted users since at least 2019, posing as legitimate cryptocurrency investment platforms, but in reality set up to steal funds, Google said in its lawsuit, filed in New York federal court.

The scams allegedly operated by Yunfeng Sun in Shenzhen and Hongnam Cheung in Hong Kong are part of the rising trend of “pig-butchering” schemes, known as such in reference to the process of fattening a pig before slaughtering it.

Image credit: Unsplash

Financial fraud

Such scams involve forming relationships or romances with a target, then convincing them to invest funds in a fraudulent cryptocurrency scheme.

The two named in Google’s lawsuit allegedly made initial contact with targets via seemingly mis-sent text messages such as “I am Sophia, do you remember me?” or “I miss you all the time, how are your parents Mike?”

They would then seek to form a relationship or romance with the target, while transferring the conversation to a messaging app such as WhatsApp and persuading them to download one of the fraudulent crypto apps and make investments.

The apps were supported by faked online videos and promised high returns.

Fake crypto apps

When users made investments, the apps would show balances and returns, but when users tried to withdraw funds they were unable to do so.

The apps would then request additional “fees” of 10 to 30 percent to cover commissions or taxes. Once a target’s funds were exhausted the service would sever contact with them, Google said.

Google said the integrity of its app store and other services were threatened by these actions and said it suffered economic damages of $75,000 (£59,000) in investigating the fraud.

Google is asking the court to block the pair from accessing Google services to commit further fraud as well as unspecified damages.

Worldwide scope

Pig-butchering scams have risen dramatically since the Covid-19 pandemic and are often operated from compounds in Asia staffed by hundreds or thousands of people, who target victims around the world, according to a recent FBI advisory.

Last year authorities in Myanmar arrested 44,000 suspected online scammers in a joint operation with Chinese police, with a further 807 suspects arrested in Myanmar in March, including 455 Burmese nationals and 354 Chinese nationals, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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