Western Union Scams

How to Avoid Them

Money Transfer Van
••• Peter Ptschelinzew/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Every day, attempts are made to take advantage of people through Western Union scams. Western Union is a legitimate business that provides valuable services, but it has become a favorite tool of online thieves.

There are two key facts you should know about transferring money with Western Union.

  • When you transfer money using Western Union, the recipient can walk into any Western Union office, get cash, and leave. At that point, the money is gone, and there’s no way to reverse or cancel the payment.
  • In many cases, there’s no way to find out who received the money. You might have specified a recipient, and the agent might even require identification, but it’s relatively easy for thieves to get around those rules.

With this in mind, you should only use Western Union to send money to somebody you know because once you're scammed, your money will be gone for good. Armed with that knowledge, you need to decide if it’s worth the risk. Even if you have worked with the recipient before, there is always a risk of money transfer scams.

Typical Scams

The most common scams involve somebody who wants to buy what you’re selling online. The buyer might send a payment to you, and then ask that you wire money back or send funds by Western Union.

In those situations, there’s a good chance you’re being taken for a ride. Con artists are surprisingly good at what they do and have the ability to persuade even savvy people to send them money.

Red flags of popular scams include:

  • A buyer sends you extra money (more than the purchase price) to cover shipping costs, especially for expensive-to-ship items.
  • Somebody from out of town was planning to rent your apartment, but things fell through, and they want the security deposit back.
  • Your buyer accidentally got a cashier’s check for the wrong amount, but they trust you to send back any excess.

In addition to scams that ask you to refund money, thieves can also take your money by selling items online, demanding payment by Western Union or Money Gram, then not sending the items.

What If I Already Got Paid?

You might wonder how it’s possible to lose money if you already received a payment from your buyer. Unfortunately, money does not move through the banking system as fast as you might expect—unless you use a traditional wire transfer.

If you receive a check—even an official check or a cashier’s check—the check might bounce several weeks after you deposit it. However, your bank will add the funds to your account balance and allow you to withdraw the money as if the check was good. But you are ultimately responsible for all deposits. Therefore, if the check bounces after you withdraw the cash, you’ll have to replace those funds.

The same holds true for electronic payments. A scammer might send money to your PayPal or Venmo account, and you might think all is well, but those charges can be reversed. The sender could have used a stolen credit card or a hacked account, or they might simply dispute the transaction. Either way, you won’t find out about it until after you’ve sent the scammer money—which can’t be recovered.

How Scammers Get Away With It

It’s reasonable to assume that the police can easily find the thief using information from the bank accounts used and video surveillance from anywhere the thief picked up the money. But in most cases, law enforcement agencies can’t do anything—in many cases, the scammers are overseas and impossible to find.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for thieves to give you the impression that they are local. They can send and receive text messages using local numbers via VOIP (a service that allows you to make phone calls over the Internet).

Identification

Most of these scams originate outside of the United States. Some countries do not have the identification standards the U.S. has. Even if identification cards are issued, people may not be required to show an ID to receive a Western Union payment. Fake IDs might be easier to come by and be less recognizable in other nations, making it easier to create scams via Western Union in countries where ID is standardized.

Recipients in other countries sometimes just need a few details about the transaction—perhaps a transaction ID, known as the MTCN, or their name, to walk away with your cash.

Online Sales

Consider using a service such as PayPal to protect yourself when purchasing from or selling to individuals online. Sites such as eBay have buyer protection policies to assist buyers who have been scammed, and a dispute resolution process that works well 99% of the time.

Craigslist is a popular platform used by Western Union scammers. To avoid scams, insist on local, cash-only buyers unless you have a good reason to do a transaction otherwise.

For a more customized online purchasing experience, try an online escrow service, which can help both parties trade with confidence.

Prevention and Actions

Awareness and education are the best way to prevent scams. If you believe you are the victim of a scam, Western Union provides a hotline you can call for information and help. Always call law enforcement if you or someone you know is a victim of a scam.