Western Union operates the largest remittance and wire transfer network in the world, with well over 300,000 agent locations worldwide and operates several "money in minutes" wire transfer service options worldwide.
It's also the network that's often targeted for fraud and scams. In this case, the sheer speed and transparency of their network can work against those looking to send money.
Popular Western Union Scam Signals & Risks
- Sending Money to Anyone You Don't Know – if you don't know who they are, use extreme caution. Unless it's a family member and this is a true person to person money transfer, you have other options that can protect you and are often less expensive than Western Union
- Payments for Purchases / Business / Company Purchases but sending to an Individuals Name – If you're buying from a company but they're telling you to send to a persons name, it should be a red flag. The Money Transfer service is intended to be for personal use.
- "Send the Money Right Away" Scam – Scammers using Western Union like to demand for immediate payment, as in that same day. Part of the reason is risk controls that Western Union uses, given enough time they can identify risky transactions to scammers, but it takes time. Scammers like to use multiple names, rotate them daily, and keep cycling through as quickly as they can as they're hitting you and others up for money every day.
- Scammers wanting you to send Money in Several Installments – Scammers like to use Western Union in installments to get around send thresholds, max send amounts, and velocity checks. If they're asking for multiple transactions, stay away.
- Names are Insecure – Western Union is often criticized because their system is so open. All they ask for is the name and city of the recipient. That person just has to show any form of ID, and in foreign countries that's often not even done — they just show up and claim the funds. Records usually aren't kept, so while you can prove you sent the money, the real receiver isn't always the intended recipient. You can add a security question when you send the funds – that helps but again, minimal wage clerks at check cashers may or may not really validate it so use caution.
- Foreign Recipients – if you are sending funds outside of the United States, pay extra caution to the receiving country. Popular fraud rings are often located in Africa, Asia, and throughout eastern Europe. This certainly doesn't mandate that it's fraud, but your risk factor goes WAY up.
- Money Order Scam – another popular scam is when a fraudster promises to send you a money order or other instrument in exchange for your money transfer. This one is clear fraud — the Money Transfer is immediate funds, while the money orders are typically fraudulent / invalid instruments. It's basically a fake check — use caution.
- NIgerian Faud Ring with Western Union – one of the longest running scams on the market. Usually preceeded by an email telling you that they've identified you as a received of unclaimed funds, or will provide a cashiers check verified and sent to you upon receipt of a Money Transfer receipt. It's always amazing that people actually fall for these obvious fishing attempts, but they do. Sad but true.
What do do If You're Targeted in Western Union Fraud Attempts
Western Union does operate a fraud protection program, and you can contact them online or by phone (800-325-6000).
You should also consider contacting your state attorney generals office or FTC.
Unfortunately, in many cases it will be too late. If you paid for your transaction online with Western Union you should contact them directly, or you can discuss options with your credit card issuer. In most cases however the scammer will have you send funds and it will be done at an agent location, which means you paid in cash and if so you're probably out of luck.
The best defense in this case is education and prevention. Western Union is great for person to person transfers when the two parties know each other or are trustworthy — but using it for business transactions or purchases should be absolutely avoided.