SINGAPORE - If you think fraudsters target mostly uneducated or unsophisticated folk, you are very wrong as two super-smart victims know all too well.
One is a savvy cryptocurrency investor in Spain, and another is a veteran medical professional in the United States, but both have something in common - they were cheated out of a fortune.
The pair were lured into fake investments run primarily by crime syndicates based in South-east Asia and ended up losing US$7 million (S$9.4 million).
These high-fliers are not alone. The Global Anti-Scam Organisation (Gaso) notes that the job list of victims who turn to it reads like the membership of a high-society club. They include scientists, professors, architects, lawyers, accountants, auditors, doctors, geologists and company vice-presidents.
Indeed, a third of them had master's and doctoral degrees while others had tertiary qualifications. Only 12 per cent of the victims had just a high school education.
Gaso says the new strain of the traditional love con - known now as the pig-butchering scam - is very potent because it uses a combination of relationship plus investment strategy to trick victims.
Almost 80 per cent of the victims are either divorced or single and close to 70 per cent are women. While a third of the victims are men, it does not mean that the syndicates have many women to assist them in the fraud; they just use women's photographs as fake profiles and voice-altering software to dupe their victims.
How to avoid such scams? Gaso members have some tips that can save you from losing money.
Never give money to anyone you meet online
No matter how compelling their stories, you should never give money to anyone whom you have not met face to face.
Even video-calls are not good enough because Gaso believes some syndicates have been using deep-fake technology to create images of real people talking as fronts to deceive their victims.
Of course, when it comes to investments, you should think twice about putting your money into any unknown company or one that is not regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
And always consider how you are going to enforce your rights if something goes wrong with an overseas investment.
Also note that crooks even clone legitimate companies and create fake sites that look legitimate to even seasoned investors.
So if your "online friend" starts to talk to you about investing, it is probably a sign you are being targeted.
If you are really keen to invest, there are many reputable companies here that can advise you - in face-to-face meetings.
Check the website's background
Gaso says many of the fake investment websites are fly-by-night operations because they fear being tracked by the police. As a result, they leave behind a big tell-tale sign if you look at their set-up and expiry dates.
For instance, if you are given a trading website to put your money in, you can do a quick domain check at whois.com which will let you know who owns the site and when it was set up.
Most reputable trading companies would have set up their online platforms years ago and they would have paid the fees for their sites for the next few years too.
Only those that wish to make a quick buck have recent start-up dates and short expiry dates, Gaso says.
Do online check on the photographs
Let's face it - scammers are unlikely to use their own photographs when they contact you because these can identify them after the crime is exposed.
So they are likely to copy and use pictures of strangers that are readily available in many social media platforms. Of course, to get the victims' attention, they are likely to use photographs of good-looking people.
What this means is that if you are contacted online by strangers who use profile photographs of handsome men or beautiful women, consider the possibility that they are scammers trying their luck.
If you still feel the need to communicate with them, do an online search with their photographs on Baidu and Google because this may reveal the true identities of the people in the photographs or that they were used in other scams.
Even if your search does not reveal anything suspicious, you should stay away from these strangers the moment they start to talk about money and investment.
There is no sure-win investment
A common ruse for scammers now is to lure victims into cryptocurrency trading.
This is because many people have probably heard stories about how investors have struck it big with such investments, but yet they do not quite understand how this works or how to invest in such things. Hence it is easy for the crooks to create fake sites to dupe the victims since all of them are new to this anyway.
Always do your own research and deal only with companies that you are comfortable with, not unknown entities that are introduced by strangers.
It goes without saying that if they tell you their investment will make a lot of money, it is probably true because your life savings will become their profit.