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Keep your money safe from money transfer scams
Americans lost more than $900 million to fraud in recent years — and wire transfers are the biggest culprit.
Millions of people are affected by money transfer scams each year. Learn what to look out for so you can keep your money safe.
The most common money transfer scams always include at least one of the following:
- A request from someone you’ve never met.
- Someone in a crisis that you can’t tell anyone else about.
- A money transfer being the only form of payment accepted.
- Paying money to get more money back.
Common money transfer scams to watch out for
|Scam||What to watch out for||What to do|
|Venmo scam||Someone “accidentally” sending you money on Venmo, Cash App, Zelle and similar apps||Do not send the money back, ask the sender to cancel the transaction|
|Online purchases||Asking for money up front||Do not pay up front, ask to meet or arrange escrow|
|Lottery and sweeps||Must pay a fee to receive your prize||Ignore it; it’s not a real prize|
|“Get out of jail”||A person claiming to be a loved one asks you to wire bail money||Never send a money transfer until you can verify you know the recipient|
|“Guaranteed” loans||Request to pay for your application or taxes before you receive the loan||Rip it up; do not send the money|
|Phishing||Asking for personal details over email (bank accounts, passwords, SSN)||Do not reply or click any link; forward the email to firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Bogus checks||Receiving a check payment with a request to wire the difference back to the sender||Take it to your bank to verify if its real or fake|
|Mystery shopper||You’re sent a check along with your welcome letter and told to send a money order back||Don’t cash the money order; ignore this offer|
|Charity||Donation requests from a fake charity posing as real one||Never wire money when donating to charity, regardless of its legitimacy|
|Nigerian dignitary||Someone contacts you to help recover a large sum of money, and need your bank account info to help pay fees||Never provide financial information over email|
|“Stranded traveler”||A loved one claims to be in trouble, and they are asking for you to send cash||Never send a money transfer until you can verify you know the recipient|
|Online dating||Getting to know someone online and after you feel a connection, they ask you to wire money||Never send money to someone you have not met in person|
- “Accidental” money transfer
You receive a transfer on Venmo, Cash App, Zelle, PayPal, Apple Pay, Google Pay or a similar service from someone you don’t know. The amount of this transfer may vary, but will probably be a few hundred dollars. You’ll receive a message after the transfer claiming that it was sent on accident, and the sender will ask you to send the money back. You want to do the right thing so you refund them the “accidental” transfer amount, only to realize later you never received a transfer from them to begin with and now you’ve lost a few hundred dollars or more.
- What to do
Do not refund them the amount. Chances are the original transfer they sent you was paid for with a stolen credit card and it will be cancelled on its own. Instead, ask the user who “accidentally” sent you money to cancel the transaction on their end, or request that they contact the platform directly for assistance.
- Online purchase scams
You’ve found your dream apartment but are requested to transfer the first month’s rent up front. Or a timeshare, but there are taxes you need to take care of with a money order first. Maybe your search for a car has paid off with an unbelievable deal, but there are application fees you need to cover with a wire transfer. While many online retailers are legitimate, scammers leverage the anonymity of the Internet to rip you off. That includes asking for money before you’ve even gotten the merchandise. Before you know it, they’re gone — along with your money.
- What to do
Be wary of anybody online who tells you there’s upfront deposits or payments — especially if you haven’t yet met them and there’s no contract. And if anybody online says you can only pay with a wire transfer or money order, find another retailer. Or ask to meet in person.
- Lottery and sweepstakes scams
What luck! You’ve received a letter that you’ve scored a prize. Or maybe you’re contacted about a lottery you’ve won. It’s a lot of money, and there’s only one catch: you first need to pay a fee or cover taxes to receive it. It’s such a small amount, about $1,000. Surely that’s worth receiving what you’re due.
- What to do
You should never have to pay up front to receive a prize or lottery winnings. That alone should raise red flags. But if you’re curious, research the organization or company from which you’ve received your letter to see what others have to say. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- “Get out of jail” scams
An email or phone call may come in from someone claiming to be a loved one, or from someone claiming to be an attorney or police officer on behalf of a loved one. The person requests money be wired immediately in order to post bail.
- What to do
Never send money without verifying the identity of the recipient. If you’re concerned you may be leaving someone in the wind, ask for the details of where they’re supposedly being held then try to contact the loved one through friends, family members and contact information you had prior to the call.
- “Guaranteed” loan scams
You get a letter that you’re guaranteed approval for a loan or credit card. There’s only one last task before you can get it: wire money for the application or taxes. That’s easy enough, right?
- What to do
You should never need to send money in order to receive an authentic credit card or loan. Instead of sending the money, research the company who sent you the letter. You’ll probably see warnings from others to rip it up.
- Phishing scams
You open your computer to an email from your bank asking you to verify your account number. Or it could be from an e-retailer needing confirmation of your password. Sometimes it’s a link from your email provider itself asking you to click and double-check your details. It’s all so official, how could it not be legit?
- What to do
Don’t be tricked into giving out any personal information. Keep in mind that you will never be emailed by a legitimate bank, retailer or other service provider to confirm your personal information, financial details or password. This is called “phishing”, and you should not reply or click any links in the email — instead simply forward it to the Federal Trade Commission’s dedicated email address, email@example.com.
- Bogus check scams
Because you’re the online seller doesn’t mean you’re safe from scammers. Unbelievably, they’ll find a way even when the tables are turned. You may have gotten a reply to your online auction with a check that’s for more than your item — with simple request for you to wire back the difference. The check is likely fake, leaving you on the hook for both the money you wire and a bounced check fee from your bank.
- What to do
If you receive a cashier’s check, do not cash it. Take it to your bank or the authorities for verification.
- Mystery shopper scams
You may be contacted about a fun new gig: becoming a mystery shopper for a local retail chain. Along with your welcome letter, you’re sent a money order. Only the amount is more than it should be. When you contact the number on your letter, you’re told to go ahead and cash it, and then simply send a money order for the overage. Better yet, send a wire transfer to make it you refund the company more quickly.
- What to do
You’ve likely recognized this for what it is: just another variation of the bogus check scam. Do not cash the money order. And lose the number for this bogus company, instead of losing your hard-earned cash.
- Charity scams
Disasters bring out the best in people. But they can also unearth con artists who prey on the altruistic. Be cautious of letters requesting donations in cash or by wire transfer to cover the cost of aid.
- What to do
Research the charity online with a site like Charity Navigator. Because some scammers use names that closely resemble well-known, reputable organizations, Google the exact name shown in your email or letter. And never wire money to anybody claiming to be a charity. It’s best to pay by check or credit card.
- Nigerian dignitary scams
Though it’s the butt of many jokes, the “Nigerian prince” scam is even more successful now than it was a decade or two ago. For this scam, you’re contacted by somebody requesting your help in recovering a great deal of money. They claim that if you help them by providing your banking account information or money to pay fees, you’ll be rewarded with a substantial portion of the money.
- What to do
This is just another variation of the advance fee scam. Never provide your financial information or send money to anybody you don’t know.
- “Stranded traveler” scams
This one involves an email from friends, often ones traveling abroad, who’ve found themselves in trouble and need money wired immediately to return home. The amount is nearly always $1,000 or more and may even appear to come from a friend’s actual email address. Except it’s not actually your friend who’s sending it. Instead, their account has been hijacked through a phishing scam.
- What to do
Be wary of any email from a friend in trouble overseas. Attempt to make contact with them or confirm their whereabouts with your social network. As with other scams, never wire money without being certain you know the recipient.
- Online dating scams
Another tough one — and therefore popular among scammers — involves a bond with somebody you’ve met online through a dating app. Often, that person wants to immediately leave the site for a more intimate DM or text chat. They may claim to be working overseas with plans to visit soon. Over the course of some time, you’re lead to believe there’s a strong connection. And then they ask for you to wire some money.
- What to do
By now, you know the answer: don’t wire money to anybody you don’t know. You could ask to meet in person, even if it seems impossible — their refusal will be a clear sign that they may not be who they say they are. If you were emailed a photo, consider using a reverse photo search to see if you can confirm the name you’ve been given. You may discover many names attached to the photo. Again, a clear sign that you’re dealing with a scammer.
How to keep safe from scammers
Avoid becoming a victim of a wire transfer scam by following a few basic tenets:
- Never wire money to strangers. Under any circumstances.
- Pay by credit card. That way, you’ll have some recourse if things go awry.
- Be wary of unsolicited email. Your email, financial and other service providers will never email you to confirm personal info or passwords.
- Go with your gut. Con artists deal in pressure and threats. When in doubt, slow down. A quick online search can often confirm your suspicions.
How to choose a reputable money transfer provider
We update our data regularly, but information can change between updates. Confirm details with the provider you're interested in before making a decision.
I may be the victim of a scam. What should I do?
If you suspect that you’re the victim of a money transfer scam:
- Call your local police. File a police report for the amount you’ve been defrauded.
- File a complaint with the FTC. Call toll-free at 877-382-4357 or file a complaint online with the FTC Complaint Assistant.
- Contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center. This partnership of the FBI and National White Collar Crime Center is for victims of fraud that began with Internet contact.
Many online seller websites like eBay have their own protocol for reporting and dealing with scammers. If you’ve wired money, you can also alert your wire transfer company of your situation so they can be ready for any future complaints.
While it’s tough to admit that you might have been the victim of somebody’s wrongdoing, try not to be too hard on yourself. Wire transfer scams are on the rise because these cons are constantly evolving. By reporting it and talking openly about your experience, you’re helping others to recognize and put a stop to them.
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