But there are also other, far more dire consequences to these scams. And over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed growing attention, in both the US and China, to the scammers behind these crimes, who are often victims of the scams themselves. A new book in English, a movie in Chinese, and a slew of media reports in both languages are now shining light on the fascinating (and horrifying) aspects of a scary trend in human trafficking.
For a sense of scale, just last week Binance, one of the largest crypto exchanges, released data showing a huge jump in the number of pig-butchering scams reported to the company: an increase of 100.5% from 2022 to 2023, even though there are still a few months left in this year.
This kind of fraud is the subject of a new Chinese movie that unexpectedly became a box-office hit. No More Bets is centered on two Chinese people who are lured to Myanmar with the promise of high-paying jobs; once trapped abroad, they are forced to become scammers, though—spoiler alert—they eventually manage to escape. But many of their fellow victims are abused, raped, or even killed for trying to do the same.
While the plot is fictional, it was adapted from dozens of interviews the movie crew conducted with real victims, some of which are shown at the end of the film. (I’ll probably check out the movie when it premieres in the US on August 31.）
Many low-level scammers have in fact been coerced into conducting crimes. They leave their homes with the hope of getting stable employment, but once they find themselves in a foreign country—usually Myanmar, Cambodia, or the Philippines—they are held captive and unable to leave.
Since the movie came out on August 8, it has made nearly $470 million at the box office, placing it among the top 10 highest-grossing movies worldwide this year, even though it was only screened in China. It has also dominated social media discourse in China, inspiring over a dozen trending topics on Weibo and other platforms.
At the same time, investigative reports from Chinese journalists have corroborated the credibility of the movie’s plot. In a podcast published earlier this month, one Chinese-Malaysian victim told Wang Zhian, an exiled Chinese investigative journalist, about his experience of being lied to by job recruiters and forced to become a scammer in the Philippines. There, 80% of his colleagues were from mainland China, with the rest from Taiwan and Malaysia.