Whether you want to call them “catfishing,” “pig butchering” or just good ‘old-fashioned “social engineering,” romance scams have been around forever.  

I was first introduced to them through the MTV show “Catfish,” but recently they seem to be making headlines as the term “pig butchering” enters the public lexicon. John Oliver recently covered it on “Last Week Tonight,” which means everyone my age with an HBO account heard about it a few weeks ago. And one of my favorite podcasts going, “Search Engine,” just covered it in an episode

The concept of “pig butchering” scams generally follows the same chain of events: 

  • An unknown phone number texts or messages a target with a generally harmless message, usually asking for a random name disguised as an “Oops, wrong number!” text. 
  • When the target responds, the actor tries to strike up a conversation with a friendly demeanor. 
  • If the conversation persists, they usually evolve into “love bombing,” including compliments, friendly advice, ego-boosting, and saying flattering things about any photos the target has sent. 
  • Sometimes, the relationship may turn romantic. 
  • The scammer eventually “butchers” the “pig” that has been “fattened up” to that point, scamming them into handing over money, usually in the form of a phony cryptocurrency app, or just straight up asking for the target to send the scammer money somehow. 

There are a few twists and turns along the way based on the exact scammer, but that’s generally how it works. What I think is important to remember is that this specific method of separating users from their money is not actually new.  

The FBI seems to release a renewed warning about romance scams every Valentine’s Day when people are more likely to fall for a stranger online wanting to make a real connection and then eventually asking for money. I even found a podcast from the FBI in 2015 in which they warned that scammers “promise love, romance, to entice their victims online,” estimating that romance-related scams cost consumers $82 million in the last half of 2014.  

The main difference that I can tell between “pig butchering” and past romance scams is the sheer scale. Many actors running these operations are relying on human trafficking and sometimes literal imprisonment, forcing these people against their will to send these mass blocks of messages to a variety of targets indiscriminately. Oftentimes in these groups, scammers who are less “successful” in luring victims can be verbally and physically harassed and punished. That is, of course, a horrible human toll that these operations are taking, but they also extend far beyond the world of cybersecurity. 

In the case of pig butchering scams, it’s not really anything that can be solved by a cybersecurity solution or sold in a package. Instead, it relies on user education and the involvement of law enforcement agencies and international governments to ensure these farms can’t operate in the shows. The founders who run them are brought to justice. 

It’s never a bad thing that users become more educated on these scams, because of that, but I also feel it’s important to remember that romance-related scams, and really any social engineering built on a personal “relationship,” has been around for years, and “pig butchering” is not something new that just started popping up. 

These types of scams are ones that our culture has kind of just accepted as part of daily life at this point (who doesn’t get surprised when they get a call about their “car’s extended warranty?), and now the infrastructure to support these scams is taking a larger human toll than ever. 

The one big thing 

Talos has yet another round of research into the Turla APT, and now we’re able to see the entire kill chain this actor uses, including the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) utilized to steal valuable information from their victims and propagate through their infected enterprises. Before deploying TinyTurla-NG, Turla will attempt to configure anti-virus software exclusions to evade detection of their backdoor. Once exclsions have been set up, TTNG is written to the disk, and persistence is established by creating a malicious service. 

Why do I care? 

Turla, and this recently discovered TinyTurlaNG tool that Talos has been writing about, is an international threat that’s been around for years, so it’s always important for the entire security community to know what they’re up to. Most recently, Turla used these tactics to target Polish non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and steal sensitive data.  

So now what? 

During Talos’ research into TinyTurla-NG, we’ve released several new rounds of detection content for Cisco Secure products. Read our past two blog posts on this actor for more.  

Top security headlines of the week 

The Biden administration issued a renewed warning to public water systems and operators this week, saying state-sponsored actors could carry out cyber attacks soon, citing ongoing threats from Iran and China. The White House and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to every U.S. governor this week warning them that cyber attacks could disrupt access to clean drinking water and “impose significant costs on affected communities.” The letter also points to the U.S. Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency’s list of known exploited vulnerabilities catalog, asking the managers of public water systems to ensure their systems are patched against these vulnerabilities. The EPA pointed to Volt Typhoon, a recently discovered Chinese APT that has reportedly been hiding on critical infrastructure networks for an extended period. A meeting among federal government leaders from the EPA and other related agencies is scheduled for March 21 to discuss threats to public water systems and how they can strengthen their cybersecurity posture. (Bloomberg, The Verge

UnitedHealth says it's still recovering from a cyber attack that’s halted crucial payments to health care providers across the U.S., but has started releasing some of those funds this week, and expects its payment processing software to be back online soon. The cyber attack, first disclosed in February, targeted Change Healthcare, a subsidiary of United, that handles payment processing and pharmaceutical orders for hospital chains and doctors offices. UnitedHealth’s CEO said in a statement this week that the company has paid $2 billion to affected providers who spent nearly a month unable to obtain those funds or needing to switch to a paper billing system. A recently published survey from the American Hospital Association found that 94 percent of hospitals that responded experienced financial disruptions from the Change Healthcare attack, and costs at one point were hitting $1 million in revenue per day. (ABC News, CNBC

Nevada’s state court system is currently weighing a case that could undo end-to-end encryption across the U.S. The state’s Attorney General is currently suing Meta, the creators of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, asking the company to remove end-to-end encryption for minors on the platform, with the promise of being able to catch and charge users who abuse the platform to lure minors. However, privacy advocates are concerned that any rulings against Meta and its encryption policies could have larger ripple effects, and embolden others to challenge encryption in other states. Nevada is arguing that Meta’s Messenger a “preferred method” for individuals targeting Nevada children for illicit activities. Privacy experts are in favor of end-to-end encryption because it safeguards messages during transmission and makes it more difficult for other parties to intercept and read them — including law enforcement agencies. (Tech Policy Press, Bloomberg Law

Can’t get enough Talos? 

Upcoming events where you can find Talos 


Botconf (April 23 - 26) 

Nice, Côte d'Azur, France

This presentation from Chetan Raghuprasad details the Supershell C2 framework. Threat actors are using this framework massively and creating botnets with the Supershell implants.

CARO Workshop 2024 (May 1 - 3) 

Arlington, Virginia

Over the past year, we’ve observed a substantial uptick in attacks by YoroTrooper, a relatively nascent espionage-oriented threat actor operating against the Commonwealth of Independent Countries (CIS) since at least 2022. Asheer Malhotra's presentation at CARO 2024 will provide an overview of their various campaigns detailing the commodity and custom-built malware employed by the actor, their discovery and evolution in tactics. He will present a timeline of successful intrusions carried out by YoroTrooper targeting high-value individuals associated with CIS government agencies over the last two years.

RSA (May 6 - 9) 

San Francisco, California    

Most prevalent malware files from Talos telemetry over the past week 

SHA 256: 0e2263d4f239a5c39960ffa6b6b688faa7fc3075e130fe0d4599d5b95ef20647 
MD5: bbcf7a68f4164a9f5f5cb2d9f30d9790 
Typical Filename: bbcf7a68f4164a9f5f5cb2d9f30d9790.vir 
Claimed Product: N/A 
Detection Name: Win.Dropper.Scar::1201 

SHA 256: 9f1f11a708d393e0a4109ae189bc64f1f3e312653dcf317a2bd406f18ffcc507  
MD5: 2915b3f8b703eb744fc54c81f4a9c67f  
Typical Filename: VID001.exe  
Claimed Product: N/A  
Detection Name: Win.Worm.Coinminer::1201 

SHA 256: a31f222fc283227f5e7988d1ad9c0aecd66d58bb7b4d8518ae23e110308dbf91  
MD5: 7bdbd180c081fa63ca94f9c22c457376 
Typical Filename: c0dwjdi6a.dll |
Claimed Product: N/A  
Detection Name: Trojan.GenericKD.33515991 

SHA 256: 7b3ec2365a64d9a9b2452c22e82e6d6ce2bb6dbc06c6720951c9570a5cd46fe5 
MD5: ff1b6bb151cf9f671c929a4cbdb64d86 
Typical Filename: endpoint.query 
Claimed Product: Endpoint-Collector 
Detection Name: W32.File.MalParent 

SHA 256: e38c53aedf49017c47725e4912fc7560e1c8ece2633c05057b22fd4a8ed28eb3 
MD5: c16df0bfc6fda86dbfa8948a566d32c1 
Typical Filename: CEPlus.docm 
Claimed Product: N/A  
Detection Name: Doc.Downloader.Pwshell::mash.sr.sbx.vioc