Western Union is a genuine, legitimate, feature-rich service and in the past it was one of the best alternative payment systems around. But those features and that accessibility made it a haven for scammers and once they began targeting its users and using it to facilitate dodgy deals, it got a bad name that it struggled to shake.
Western Union is no longer the dominant force it used to be in the world of secure payments, but it still exists, it is still used by millions of people a day, and it is still targeted by scammers. If you use Western Union yourself then make sure you keep an eye out for these Western Union scams.
Western Union Emergency Scams
You get an email from a friend or family member on your contact list. They tell you that they are stuck in a foreign country and that they need money to get home, pay for hospital fees, or pay for somewhere to spend the night.
They might claim to have lost their passport, to have been the victim of theft or fraud, or to have had an accident. They will then request that you send them money through a Western Union account in order to help them out.
How to Avoid Them
These scams occur because your friend has had their email account hacked, with emails being sent to everyone on their contact list. They may make it look like it was sent to you and you only, and if you are a long-lost friend or family member who typically doesn’t have direct contact but is happy to help out, then you’re the perfect victim.
They don’t want to target close friends, because those friends will simply phone the person. In fact, most friends would expect such a desperate message to be passed on by phone anyway.
Firstly, know that 99.99% of these emails will be scams, but on the off-chance that your friend is in trouble, you should still confirm. Phone them, email them back, text them—just get a message across to them to see if it really is them. And if it is, then offer to pay money direct into their bank account, which has their name on and is in their country of origin.
If it is not them, which is the most likely outcome, warn them about the scam, tell them to send a warning to everyone on their contact list, and then change their password.
Western Union Extortion Scams
This scams are malicious and involve aggressive demands that play on peoples’ fear. You may receive an email, text or phone-call claiming that they have something of yours, whether it be sensitive data pilfered from your phone/computer, or pictures of you doing something you should not.
These scams, like all scams, throw out a wide net, hoping to catch a few fish. They are hoping that you have compromising pictures of yourself on your phone, or that you were recently in a situation where such pictures could have been taken. They play on the fear you have that someone, somewhere, has these images.
They use vague terms that paint a very basic picture and then let your fear fill in the gaps. They then ask that you send them money via Western Union in order to stop these images from being released to friends and family.
How to Avoid Them
The vast majority of these are scams. They do not have anything and are simply trying their luck. However, there are hundreds of genuine blackmail attempts made every week.
In both cases you are being blackmailed and should think about contacting the police. If you want to know whether they actually have something of yours or not, just send them probing questions. Make something up and see if they confirm.
At the very least it will ease your worries.
Immigration and Tax Scams
The victim receives a call or a message from someone claiming to be from the IRS and demanding money from overdue taxes or penalties. They claim that this payment needs to be made or the police will be contacted and they use these threats of legal action throughout the call.
There is a similar scam whereby the fraudster claims to be from the immigration office and demands money to fix an issue on their form, lest they be deported.
How to Avoid Them
These scams are actually quite ridiculous. They play on a person’s fear, and they can be quite aggressive in doing so, claiming that if payments are not made then the police/immigration service will be knocking their door down in minutes.
Deep down, victims know that official government offices will never ask for money in this manner, but fear still gets the better of them. Just know that this situation would never happen in the real world and you should never send money to anyone claiming to be from the government or immigration office unless there is an extensive legal paper trail.
Many of these scams will request iTunes vouchers, which is even more ridiculous, but they can also request money by Western Union and PayPal.
Other Western Union Scams
Because it is secure and accessible, Western Union is often used by scammers to receive money from their fraudulent activity, even when Western Union isn’t necessarily at the heart of the scam.
Such Western Union scams include:
- Anti-Virus Scams: You receive a phone-call from a company claiming to be from your ISP. They typically state the name of a popular ISP, knowing that they will get it right eventually and that they will convince many victims when they do. They tell you that you have a virus on your company and that they can remove it, but only if you pay them. There is no virus, and it’s all a scam.
- Charity Scams: These are very common, targeting people’s goodwill and kind nature. They involve creating a funding page and asking for money following a natural disaster, or even requesting money for a hospitalized child or animal. They ask for the money to be routed through systems like Western Union to avoid detection. If you are going to give money, make sure it’s a legitimate charity using legitimate methods. Don’t let your good nature be your downfall.
- Purchased Items: Scammers setup accounts on online marketplaces and auction sites and offer high ticket items for sale at big discounts. The victim pays, but never receives the item. Some scammers will send the box that the item used to be in, adding a brick or weight inside to make it feel heavy and then paying for recorded delivery. That way, they can claim that they sent the item and they can show proof, which makes it difficult to get your money back. To avoid this, don’t purchase large ticket items from low feedback accounts.