Sydney single woman Sarah* was looking for love and thought she might have met "the one" on the dating platform Tinder.
But, within the space of two weeks, the 44-year-old bank worker had fallen head-over-heels, not only for a man who wasn't real, but a scam that swindled her out of $157,000 – her entire life savings and then some.
Sarah, who works for one of Australia's biggest banks, said the fallout from the scam had been emotionally and financially devastating.
"It's been humiliation, heaped upon humiliation," she said.
"I realise how idiotic I am now. I'm still trying to reconcile that I've actually done this to myself."
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The type of scam Sarah fell victim to is known for its remorselessness and goes by the aptly brutal term "pig butchering".
Pig butchering is a cross between a romance and cryptocurrency scam and alludes to the idea of victims being "fattened up for the slaughter" with the belief they are falling in love.
Global law enforcement and cybersecurity experts warn it's now a crime that's on the rise in Western countries, after originating in China.
'It was so good'
The nightmare all started for Sarah last month when she was matched with a man called John* on Tinder.
The man had a "verified" Tinder profile and appeared to live just 16 kilometres away from Sarah in Sydney's inner west.
According to Tinder, users are required to submit a "video selfie" which is compared to their profile photo using facial recognition technology in order to gain verification.
On its website, Tinder states that "while the blue check mark can be a signal that someone is who they claim based on the photos they have provided to Tinder, it is not a guarantee of authenticity".
A spokesperson for Tinder told 9news.com.au the use of video selfies to verify accounts was a recent change made to strengthen its processes.
Tinder is yet to respond to questions about whether the user who approached Sarah had used a video selfie to authenticate their account.
John's photos on Tinder showed a man, pictured with a pet husky.
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"He was hot," Sarah said.
"And we got along so well, it was amazing. I've got to say it was unbelievable, which I guess is the point of how they make it."
Within a day, John had moved their chat off Tinder to the messaging service WhatsApp.
Sarah said this seemed normal and didn't raise any alarm bells.
"I was actually already talking to another guy on WhatsApp.
"I didn't give it another thought to be honest. I just thought, 'What's the difference?' It's just your phone number. It never bothered me."
John appeared to have an Australian phone number on WhatsApp.
"So far he had Tinder verification and an Australian number – I did not doubt for a second that the person I was talking to was not the person in the photos," Sarah said.
Straight away, John and Sarah began exchanging what would add up to hundreds of messages.
"He dumped his Tinder profile after a couple of days. He said, 'Don't freak out, but I've got rid of my profile so I can concentrate on you,'" Sarah said.
"That was just flattering.
"I actually told another guy I was speaking to first, 'I'm sorry, I've met this other person', because it was so good."
John filled Sarah in on the backstory of his life. He came to Australia from Malta six years ago and worked in construction.
"We had lots of good conversations," she said.
"Obviously he had his dog. I have my two cats. We both love animals. We talked about that and our families."
The pair shared everything, from mundane photos of what they were having for dinner, to confidences about what they were looking for in a partner.
The butchering begins
Almost immediately, John mentioned he was trading in cryptocurrency, as a side hustle in addition to his construction work, Sarah said.
Then, four days after they met, John said he could help Sarah make some money through an online trading platform.
John directed Sarah to set up an account with a legitimate Australian cryptocurrency exchange called CoinSpot, to convert the money she was investing to the digital currency Tether.
He then introduced her to a cryptocurrency trading platform – MEXC.
MEXC is also a legitimate company. However, as Sarah would later find out, the website John had referred her to was fake, and not the real MEXC website.
"On the fake site, it looked like I could see everything. I could see the deals, the profits in my account," Sarah said.
Sarah's confidence was bolstered when John demonstrated how she could put in a small amount of money and withdraw it immediately.
"After that, I just transferred everything – I was adding $10,000, $20,000. I kept putting more in," Sarah said.
The fraudulent cryptocurrency trading website also had a "customer service" department.
"I was talking to them," she said.
"They gave me my deposit address. They had a chart with rewards, so if you deposited a certain amount, you would get a certain amount."
John made it appear as if he was putting money into Sarah's trading account to "boost the profits".
Things fell apart rapidly the next week, however, when John instructed Sarah to withdraw all the funds as the "good trading period was over".
When Sarah tried to withdraw the money, she was told she needed to pay a "security deposit" to unlock the funds, which amounted to around A$40,000.
Sarah paid the deposit. But then received a message saying that she needed to pay double that amount again.
"I didn't have the money," Sarah said.
"John borrowed what he could. I cleaned out my redraw account. It was everything I had left and we were still only halfway there," Sarah said.
In what is perhaps Sarah's biggest regret of the whole ordeal, she said she asked a close friend to loan her the other $40,000.
"This is really bad, but I borrowed $40,000 off her, to pay the other half," she said.
After paying the second "security deposit" the money still hadn't been transferred into Sarah's CoinSpot account.
"I said, 'John, where is the money? It should be there by now'," Sarah said.
"And he said, 'That's weird' and told me to contact customer service."
Again, Sarah was told more money was needed, this time because her account had been flagged as potentially being involved in a money laundering operation.
"We were both scrambling, as they had given us a deadline of three days," she said.
"I was frantically trying to get a personal loan. I was unsuccessful, thank God."
Sarah said she finally confessed the trouble she was in to her best friend.
"I completely lost it and I just told her what was happening," Sarah said.
"She got her husband and they both said, 'Do you realise you've been scammed?'"
Sarah's friend's husband called the WhatsApp phone number, only to find it was disconnected.
"It wasn't a real number. It was then that everything just crashed down on me," Sarah said.
Another crushing moment came when Sarah tracked down the real man in the photos with the husky.
"It was so easy," she said.
"I literally looked up 'guy with husky' and his was the very first picture that came up."
Scams on the rise
Sarah is far from alone in falling victim to a dating scam.
According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's ScamWatch, almost $24 million has been lost to romance scams so far this year.
It is the second-most expensive type of scam, in terms of money lost to victims, falling only behind investment scams.
ScamWatch data suggests women are likely to lose more money than men in romance scams, accounting for 74 percent of the losses.
Meanwhile, scammers operating pig butchering schemes, a romance scam spin-off, have been gaining traction online over the past few years.
In April, the Department of Justice in the US announced that Americans had lost around A$175 million to cryptocurrency "pig butchering".
The Global Anti-Scam Organisation has also issued recent warnings about pig butchering scams.
Australian cybercrime expert Simon Smith, from the Online Crime Action Centre, told 9news.com.au in December he had worked with many local victims of pig butchering scams, with some losing up to $850,000.
"They are very elaborate and relentless, the scammers keep going until they have taken their victim's last cent, and then some," Smith said.
What do I do now?
After learning she had been scammed, Sarah contacted ReportCyber, run by the government's Australian Cyber Security Centre and lodged a report.
In response to her report, NSW ReportCyber told Sarah in an email that the scam appeared to have been orchestrated by a person overseas – outside the jurisdiction of NSW Police.
Further investigation was also "unlikely to result in a successful prosecution of the party responsible" because of the unregulated nature of cryptocurrency, NSW ReportCyber said.
Unhappy with the response, Sarah said she made a statement at her local police station, but police were yet to follow up the matter.
"It's quite clear that they've got no bloody idea what to do," Sarah said.
"If someone broke into my house and stole everything that would be a different story."
"I have no idea where to go now," she said.
Sarah said her priority was to apply for an increased loan on her mortgage, in order to repay her friend.
"I'm just terrified now. I was in a really good financial position, for my age, and now I'm not," she said.
"I didn't lose everything as I still have my property and I still have my super. But, with $157,000 gone, I won't come back from this for years.
"It's been bad on all fronts. I feel like I lost him, I lost my money, and I lost myself a bit.
"I'm the kind of person who's never done anything wrong in their life. I'm a rule follower and I've done this one thing and it's ruined everything."
* Names have been changed.