Google sues alleged crypto scammers for luring people into investments they’d never get back

Google is suing two alleged crypto scammers, accusing them of using its Play Store to offer fraudulent cryptocurrency trading apps and investment platforms that instead simply took users’ money. These apps were used in a type of romance scam commonly called “pig butchering” in reference to fattening a pig before it’s slaughtered.

The accused scammers — two app developers based in China and Hong Kong — allegedly uploaded 87 different fraudulent apps to enable their schemes, luring in more than 100,000 people who downloaded them. Based on user complaints, Google alleges that users lost anywhere from $100 to tens of thousands of dollars each. Apps uploaded by the pair and their unnamed associates have been used in versions of the scam since at least 2019, according to Google.

Google says it’s the first company of its peers to take this kind of action. It already shut down the apps on the Play Store once it determined they were fraudulent. “This litigation is a critical step in holding these bad actors accountable and sending a clear message that we will aggressively pursue those who seek to take advantage of our users,” Google’s general counsel, Halimah DeLaine Prado, said in a statement. Google says it was also harmed by the scheme because it threatens the “integrity” of its app store and diverted resources to detect and disrupt the operation. The company says it suffered economic damages of more than $75,000 investigating the fraud.

Here’s how the alleged scam worked, according to Google’s complaint: the developers would make fake cryptocurrency exchange and investment apps, misrepresenting them to the Play Store as legitimate investing apps and allegedly misrepresenting details like their location so they could be uploaded. Then, the alleged scammers or their associates would lure users to the platforms through a mix of romance scam messages and YouTube videos. While this kind of scam is often referred to as “pig butchering,” Google says in a footnote to its complaint that it doesn’t adopt or endorse the term.

The initial texts they would send might look familiar to anyone who’s received text spam — messages like, “I am Sophia, do you remember me?” or “I miss you all the time, how are your parents Mike?” according to the complaint. If they got a response, the alleged scammers would apparently try to start a conversation and eventually move it to a platform like WhatsApp, before convincing their new “friend” to download one of the fraudulent apps and put money into it.

The developers or their associates would also at times convince alleged victims that they could earn commission by hawking the apps themselves as “affiliates” of the platforms, according to the complaint.

Once users were on the apps, the developers made the platforms look convincing by showing a balance and returns on investments, Google alleges. The only problem: users couldn’t take their money out. At times, the apps would let them take out small amounts of money, according to Google, or would require a fee or minimum balance to make a withdrawal, ultimately scamming some out of even more money.

Google is accusing the developers of breaking its terms of service and violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It’s asking the court to block them from committing further fraud and award Google an unspecified amount in damages.

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