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Beware of Western Union "Wire-a-friend" scam

Published: 27 Jan 2010 18:50:24 PST
Fraudsters are always on the lookout for even better ways of disguising their actions and lulling victims into a false sense of security. The latest incarnation of this is the epidemic of what we have entitled “Wire-a-Friend fraud” to identify its mechanism more clearly to potential victims. The discussion Forums of large international classified advertising sites are filled with complaints about this form of the Western Union fraud but rarely monitor their users to prevent it. (With some outstanding exceptions.) Once again the scam depends on the user being deluded about the purpose of the action and relies on the honest public’s lack of understanding of exactly how little proof is need to take their money!


Often targeting flat rental sites, (but by no means restricted to only these), the victim is asked to prove that they have access to sufficient funds to cover a transaction, deposit or period of rental by transferring by WESTERN UNION, an amount, NOT TO THE SCAMMER BUT TO A FRIEND/RELATIVE. The scammer explains that this is perfectly safe as they have no access to the funds but only require a fax copy of the receipt to be assured that the renter/buyer can afford the rent/goods.

Victims are lulled into a false sense of security because the transfer is apparently only to a relative or friend and will be returned.

Many stories are concocted about why the vendor/landlord needs this. One common story is that the landlord is abroad and needs to know the renter/buyer is ‘serious’ before traveling back to show off the flat or deliver the goods.


Reports often refer incorrectly to the use of ‘false identification’ but none is needed! Unfortunately for the victim, the details on the fax (or nowadays just extracted from the receipt) are sufficient to get a remote Western Union office to release the funds with only a (false) signature required! At one time it was thought that such low level of proof was only for sums below £500 but recently sums in excess of £1000 have reportedly been taken in this way.

Faxes are not as widespread as they once were, so the method used nowadays is to simply ask for information from the receipt of the transaction. They normally ask for:

MTCN (Money Transfer Control Number)
Sender's name (and optionally address)
Recipient's name (and optionally address) (NOTE. This is often written as 'receivers name' and frequently mis-spelt as 'recievers'.)

The fraudster explains that this is only required to be able to go to their local Western Union office to check that the transaction is valid and has really taken place.

The fraudster then does go to his/her nearest Western Union anywhere in the world, not to check the transaction but in order to remove the money! The fraudster claims to be the recipient (and can prove it with a knowledge of the sender’s address,) quotes the MTCN and the amount. This is considered sufficient proof and the money is handed over with a (false) signature taken for the receipt!


Cases have been documented where the signature has been shown as completely unlike the victim’s real signature and completely geographically distant from where the real recipient is, but Western Union have denied any responsibility for the loss. In a recent comment to the BBC about yet another instance of the “Wire-a-Friend fraud, Western Union said publicly that they “could not offer refunds to the people who have been defrauded by it.


To repeat the advice in the main Western Union article:

"Never, never, never send money to someone you are not 110% sure of by Western Union" but, to this we now have to add :
"And even if it is a relative, NEVER let anyone else know the details or that the transfer has even taken place!"

There are other ways of proving you have the money.

Police are powerless to act on reports of this fraud because:
a) The culprit could be ANYWHERE in the world and outside of their jurisdiction.
b) The victim freely told the fraudster the information they needed to take the money!

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