Western Union Scams You Should Look Out for in 2024

Dolores Bernal
Writer
March 19, 2024
Western Union Scam

A tool becomes a weapon in the wrong hands. 

Western Union is the perfect example.

The service, which allows people to send money around the world by way of electronic wire transfer, makes it quick and easy to move funds from one place to another. 

It’s great. 

Millions of people have relied on Western Union over the decades to send funds to friends, family, or associates. It’s one of the most popular ways to transfer money, not to mention faster and safer than most other methods.

At least it looks that way. 

We hate to burst your bubble but…Western Union isn’t nearly as safe as it seems. The same reasons that make it so convenient for people like you make it convenient for scammers or fraudsters too. 

If you use Western Union to send or receive payments, you need to know the risks. But even if you never use the service to transfer money, it could be a bigger danger than you realize

That’s why we recommend everyone learn more about Western Union scams—what they are, why they happen, and how to stay safe. We cover all that in the following sections.  

What is Western Union?

Western Union was founded in 1851 as a telegraph company. The core business was sending short messages over telegraph cables. Essentially, this was the first form of long-distance mass communication, arriving decades before the telephone and more than a century before email

Western Union soon became the leading American telegraph provider. It completed the first trans-Atlantic telegraph in 1861, and that spirit of innovation continued with the creation of a wire money transfer service. As the telegraph declined and eventually disappeared, money transfers and financial services became the core of Western Union’s business. 

Today, there are more than half a million locations worldwide from which to send or receive a Western Union payment. The company serves around 150 million people annually located in 200 different countries using 130 unique currencies. It transferred over $85 billion in one year

But wait—there are lots of ways to send money from one person to another these days, including many options that are free, easy, and fast. Why is Western Union still so popular?

Two reasons. First, you don’t need to have a bank account or a phone to send or receive money. You can transact entirely in cash, making the barrier to entry, especially low. 

Second, you can send money to every corner of the globe, making Western Union popular with migrant workers who send money to family members in their home country.

Western Union has been around for over 170 years, and it remains as popular as ever. The service isn’t going anywhere

That means Western Union scams aren’t going anywhere either.

What are Western Union Scams?

Some scams are designed to trick and deceive. Others attempt to extract information. But the end goal of all scams is the same: get money

Any scam that utilizes Western Union to get money from victims counts as a “Western Union Scam.” Scammers will adopt a number of different tactics (more on that in the next section) to convince people they need to send a payment as quickly as possible. Then, they will recommend—or more often require— someone to send an amount through Western Union. 

Western Union scams are as old as the service itself. Since many of these scams are never reported, we don’t have good data about how often they happen. However, Western Union settled a lawsuit in 2017 in which it admitted that criminals carried out “hundreds of thousands” of scams over a period of around a decade. The real number is probably several times higher

What you most need to know about Western Union scams is this: Anyone can be a target, and anyone can be a victim too if they encounter the right scam at the right time.

Types of Western Union Scams

Since Western Union is a payment method, it can play a role in any scam where one person pays another —which is almost all scams. Here are a few examples with high rates of success that scammers return to over and over again:

  • Fake Checks – Someone sends you a check, for any reason, for you to deposit in your bank account. Then you need to send part of the money back to them by Western Union and keep the rest (usually the majority) of the money for yourself. But then the original check turns out to be fake, and all the money you sent is…gone for good. 
  • Scam Refunds – After being scammed once, you receive a message offering to get you a refund. All you need to do is wire a small payment for the service or provide personal information such as your banking details. These offers are always scams—Western Union will never notify you to offer a refund. 
  • Financial Services – A scammer or fraudster will offer fake loans, credit cards, or investment opportunities with remarkable rates to anyone who wires an upfront fee. In another variation, scammers will call people and claim they owe unpaid taxes and must make an immediate payment through Western Union. 
  • Bogus Charities – People are eager to help, especially after a disaster or tragedy, so scammers will pose as charities and solicit donations through Western Union. Not only do the payments never go to a good cause, but the generous donors also never get their money back. 
  • Emergency Help – Someone will receive a call, text, or email from a family member or friend who says they’re in trouble and need money wired through Western Union. The message could even come from a known email address or phone number, but it’s a fake emergency designed to get someone to act without thinking. 
  • Phony Sellers – The Internet connects millions of independent buyers and sellers. Some of those sellers will accept payments through Western Union and never deliver the item(s) for sale. It probably wasn’t even real in the first place—but it was carefully chosen to make buyers want it and go to great lengths to get it.  
  • Lottery Scams – In this scam, you receive notice you’ve won the lottery or another prize. But before you can collect the winnings, you need to wire over a fee to cover the taxes or “handling” costs. The lottery was never real. All this was a ruse to get your excitement about winning to cloud your judgment.

Why Scammers Love Western Union?

Most scams aren’t that sophisticated. The red flags are right there. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to see through the deception if you spend just a few minutes looking. 

That’s why most scams try to separate you from your money as quickly as possible. 

Western Union is great for this goal: There are locations everywhere at which people can send payment with minimal time or hassle. Very little stands in the way. And the scammer can collect the payment almost the minute it gets sent. It’s an extremely efficient way to steal money before people become aware they’re being robbed.

But that’s not even the most compelling reason for scammers to use Western Union. Not even close, in fact. 

What is? Anonymity.

All it takes to collect a Western Union payment, in cash, is one of a handful of acceptable IDs (rules vary around the world). 

Some scammers use fake IDs to hide who’s actually collecting the payments—it’s easier than you would expect.

Others rely on the fact that Western Union doesn’t keep detailed records about who, exactly, picks up the money. Scammers would face more scrutiny using many alternate payment methods. Western Union gives them a way to stay in the shadows and steal with less risk.

That’s why Western Union scams have been around so long, and why they’re so popular with thieves the world over. And why things aren’t likely to change until Western Union’s policies change too. 

Risks of Western Union Scam

The risks come in two forms, both bad…but one much worse than the other. 

One risk is you lose your money by sending money to a scammer through Western Union. This is the more common risk. It’s also the smaller risk since Western Union requires more oversight as payment amounts go up. Most scammers ask for less than $3,000 because more would create extra hurdles that make the scam less likely to succeed. Thousands of dollars is a big loss for most people—but it could be even worse. 

The other risk of Western Union scams is identity theft. Clever scammers can use the promise of sending or receiving wire transfers to learn sensitive information about you like your address, email, banking information, or even login credentials. It happens A LOT more often than you would expect. And even internet-savvy people sometimes hand over personal information they would normally protect.

Once a scammer has this information, they can impersonate you online. That means they can open lines of credit, run up huge charges, ruin your reputation, and exploit your identity in other ways that cause you deep and lasting damage. Make no mistake—identity theft is a big issue that’s hard to recover from. 

Losing money to Western Union scams is bad…losing your identity is far worse. 

Recognizing Red Flags and Warning Signs

The tell-tale sign of a Western Union scam is very simple: Western Union IS involved.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Well, here’s what we mean. Western Union works great for sending money to friends and family – anyone you know personally and trust

It’s not great for sending money for any other reason: Paying for goods and services, donating to charities, resolving legal matters, paying down debts, and the list goes on. 

There are better methods than Western Union for sending money in all these situations. Therefore, anyone who requests you use Western Union (or a similar service) can only have one purpose: They’re scamming you

Red flags should immediately go up when someone besides friends or family asks to use Western Union. 

Of course, scammers know this, and they have many ways to overcome your doubts. They will explain why using Western Union is the only option, or advantageous to you in some way. Or, they will go a step further and pretend to be someone you know. These tactics can be very compelling, and scammers will say and do just about anything to lure you in, so always keep the number one rule in mind: If someone you have not met in person asks for a Western Union payment, DO NOT send it under any circumstances.

Western Union Fraud Prevention Tips

You are the difference between a Western Union scam that succeeds and one that fails. Stay on guard against this scheme (and others) by following these common-sense practices:

  • Stay Humble – Think you could never fall for a Western Union scam? Think again. That kind of confidence only makes you more susceptible to these scams because you will overlook them or underestimate them. Anyone can get scammed. But it’s less likely to happen the minute you accept that fact. 
  • Be Vigilant – Watch out for anything unusual. Wanting to use Western Union is the biggest warning sign, but there are others such as refusing to use escrow or being very pushy about getting payments. Anything that seems out of the ordinary deserves a closer look. Similarly, don’t rush to render payments—move at whatever pace you feel confident with. Always be willing to walk away and cut off contact immediately. 
  • Get ProtectionSince anyone can get wrapped up in a Western Union scheme, many people get ID theft protection. This protection can’t stop you from wiring money to a scammer, but it may be able to stop the scam from arriving in the first place by keeping your personal information and accounts more secure. Western Union scams are just one of many types of scams that potentially involve identity theft. Protection keeps this risk from becoming a reality and keeps that reality from becoming a nightmare. 

You can help to prevent Western Union scams by avoiding becoming a victim. If these scams start to fail at higher rates, it forces the people behind them to create different tactics. Any time people get better at seeing and stopping scams, it’s bad for scammers. 

Honesty is another important component for preventing Western Union scams. Many people who lose money this way feel embarrassed. They keep the episode to themselves instead of reporting it to law enforcement and Western Union. All this does is minimize the scale of the problem and prevent those with the power to improve things from taking any action. 

If you fall for a Western Union scam—of any kind, for any reason, with losses in any amount—notify Western Union immediately. The bad news is that they are unlikely to refund your money. The good news is that your claim may help to catch the scammers who stole your money, stop their future scams, and prevent other criminals from repeating the same scam.

How to Safely Use Western Union?

Who knows this subject better than the Western Union itself? According to their website:

“Only use Western Union to send money to friends and family. Never send money to someone you have not met in person.”

Following this one rule will safeguard you from most Western Union scams. But you can do more. 

Since someone may be impersonating your friends or family, verify who you are communicating with. For example, if you get an email claiming to be from a family member needing money, call them to confirm—don’t just reply to the email

If you need to regularly send money to someone, other services may offer lower fees or stronger security than Western Union. There have never been more ways to pay people. Find what works best for your situation, and don’t automatically assume Western Union is the best or only option

Final Takeaways

Once you hand your money over to a Western Union agent, consider the money gone. 

You have a very short window to cancel the transfer and get your money back. The odds are extremely low that you will see that money again once the transfer goes through. Therefore, you need to be extremely certain about who’s on the other end of that transaction. 

The best way to do that is by strictly limiting who you send payments to and under what circumstances. Go a step further by watching closely for red flags and confirming the identity of the recipient. Finally, consider getting identity theft protection so that you have a backup against the Western Union scams (and others) that you may miss. A service like Aura comes to mind.

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Taking these three steps makes it extremely hard for scammers to turn targets into victims. Most scammers will give up at that point. Instead of trying and failing to trick the same target, they’ll aim at someone else instead.

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