Should Western Union Do More To Catch Scammers?

A search for Western Union’s name on Consumerist will bring up a pile of stories about scammers who, with varying levels of success, have attempted to use the money-wiring service as conduit to transmit ill-gotten cash from their victims. While Western Union is certainly not guilty of the crimes committed by these fraudsters, are there steps the company could take to discourage these abuses?

The L.A. Times’ David Lazarus has the story of a man who received the by-now familiar scam e-mail claiming to be from a friend who was trapped in the Philippines and needed cash wired immediately to a Western Union office in Manila.

The man knew the e-mail was bogus, but played along for a bit so that he could provide enough information to Western Union in the hopes that it would be able to set up a sting and nap the scammer.

But when he called WU, he says he was told the company’s hands were tied and he should contact the police. Of course, what could his already understaffed local police department going to do about a scammer in Manila?

A Western Union rep confirmed to Lazarus that the company can’t really intervene in these matters.

“We get calls like this from good, conscientious people who want to do the right thing,” he said. “We’d like to help.”

The rep says that the wired money could have been picked up at any Western Union in the Philippines, not just the one mentioned in the e-mail, so setting up a sting would be impossible. Even if it weren’t, Western Union couldn’t put its employees at risk in such situations, explains the rep.

Currently, all you need is one photo ID to pick up cash, but Western Union could ask for thumb prints, suggests one security expert, pointing out that many banks already require them when cashing checks by people without accounts at that bank.

Lazarus suggests that Western Union takes photos of people who pick up wire transfers. “I think most honest people would accept this as a necessary precaution, just as we put up with all those security hassles when we fly,” he writes. “Most bad guys would probably balk at having to face a camera.”

Western Union has been training employees to identify when a customer may be falling for one of these wire transfer scams. We recently posted about a Connecticut woman who was saved from a “granny scam” by a well-trained clerk operating the Western Union desk inside a Big Y supermarket.

Western Union should at least send scammers a message [L.A. Times]


Edit Your Comment

  1. MutantMonkey says:

    I thought their business model was built around scamming.

  2. Cat says:

    The L.A. Times’ David Lazarus has the story of a man who received the by-now familiar scam e-mail claiming to be from a friend who was trapped in the Philippines and needed cash wired immediately to a Western Union office in Manila.

    So, my brother-in-law didn’t get the money?

  3. Hi_Hello says:

    finger prints and photo is nice…

    but how much would it cost for these extra feature?

    • SavijMuhdrox says:

      and where’s the mandatory drug test???

    • mackjaz says:

      I have absolutely no idea where these figures come from, but I’d bet an additional charge of say half a cent on every transaction would be more than enough to finance the added administration costs. Unfortunately, there’s no way to charge half a cent, so this idea is DOA.

  4. Gman says:

    IANAL but I can see why they would be hesitant. I would imagine actively going after these folks would open them up to being sued by the people victimized by the ones they did not catch or peruse.

    On a side note and totally off topic: Oh man the quality of posts on consumerist these last few days have improved immensely once they stopped posting the SEObait articles. I hope this continues and does not mean a certain author is just on vacation.

    • AK47 - Now with longer screen name! says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with your side note. And a certain author is not on vacation, he has apparently left the building. (Which I found out when someone posted this link yesterday on another comment thread.)

      • Gman says:

        oh man. Consumerist will be such a better place now. These last two days are prefect evidence of that.

        I really do not like to see people loose their jobs. Or forced to quit. Whatever. But in cases like this Phil was clearly not right for this blog. Hopefully they offered him another position in the company before he left. No matter how bad of a writer, nobody deserves to be without a job.

  5. scoobydoo says:

    It is clearly not in their best interests to intervene – the more people that are scammed, the more money WU makes.

  6. az123 says:

    I don’t think that WU should get in the middle of law enforcement, but they sure could do a bit more work on preventing people from transferring money to scamers. Training agents to ask a few questions and inform people of what scams are out there would be helpful. In the case of grandchild or whatever trapped overseas the agent here in the US, if they asked a couple questions could at least get someone to call the relative to check. I have seen a few cases here in there of WU workers doing this but is seems far from company procedures

  7. RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

    It’s also sometimes very hard to save scam victims from themselves. All the warnings in the world won’t stop someone hell-bent on shooting themselves in the foot.

    Not that these precautions would matter. Scammers are sophisticated enough, and the areas in which they operate corrupt enough that they would hardly put a dent in the activity. Need to take a photo or thumbprint? Send a mule. Or just bribe the WU agent.

  8. Bladerunner says:

    Wouldn’t this be a federal issue? Like, FBI (or possibly Secret Service, who I think handles 419 scams)?

  9. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    Since people go to a Western Union to wire money, some basic education should help. Listing common scams and signs you may have been contacted by a scammer may help someone think twice before they wire money.

    • lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

      That’s an excellent suggestion. A big poster listing the common scams, and perhaps a simple handout to read while waiting in line would probably help quite a bit.

      • homehome says:

        You know damn well ppl aren’t going to read that. You can have signs all over the place and ppl won’t read it. Why are we giving solutions we know aren’t going to work.

        • pecan 3.14159265 says:

          Because some people are truly stupid, and there is no hope for them…but others are simply gullible and naive and really don’t know any better. The elderly are often gullible and naive, but not stupid. A lot of elderly people can’t comprehend what an internet scam is. Their concept of robbery is someone pointing a gun at you and taking your wallet, not of someone behind a computer, sending you letters in the mail or making fake phone calls. If the elderly head to Western Union to wire money, the posters could catch their eye. You run down the list of “symptoms” like “Did you receive a phone call from a person claiming to be a family member?”

    • sirwired says:

      The local grocery stores with WU terminals ALREADY have signs and brochures about scammers. But nobody believes that THEY are that gullible until the money is long gone.

    • eezy-peezy says:

      they have these signs in my bank.

    • Yomiko says:

      Canada’s Little Black Book of Scams, based on a similar Australian publication.

  10. chichum says: – a guy who has a little fun with these people. A good read.

    • Hi_Hello says:


      • chichum says:

        Did you read the Janet White one? Hilarious.

        • Hi_Hello says:

          i read the whole thing!! I cracked out on a couple of things. The janet white was one of them, especially when he counter with a picture of her scuba diving.

    • scoosdad says:

      Priceless comedy. I love how the guy in Nigeria sent her a picture of ‘Janet White’ with the obviously, badly photoshopped name “Central Bank of Nigeria” onto almost everything on the wall in the background of the photo in order to convince blogger Jeff she was real.

      Gonna bookmark that one for sure, thanks.

  11. Sneeje says:

    Holding people and organizations accountable for secondary liability is a very tricky business. That’s why we don’t hold baseball bat manufacturers accountable for assaults using baseball bats or Facebook accountable for stalkers.

    In general, I think it is good long-term business for WU to try to undermine scammers, but I guess it depends on what me mean by “expect”. We already have laws in place to punish scammers and I don’t think it makes sense to legally hold WU accountable unless their employees are actively helping criminals (which has happened and WU has been punished for it).

    But the line between primary and secondary liability needs to be maintained. We don’t punish the telephone companies for crimes committed using telephones, so…

    • econobiker says:

      “Holding people and organizations accountable for secondary liability is a very tricky business. That’s why we don’t hold baseball bat manufacturers accountable for assaults using baseball bats or Facebook accountable for stalkers”

      But we hold a person accountable for knowingly providing a baseball bat for an assault. And organizations are now “persons” so knowingly providing the transfer method for known scams should be illegal.

  12. sirwired says:

    Western Union is under no obligation to protect the gullible from themselves.

    The majority of their business is not, in fact, scammers; it is immigrants sending money home to their families. This business would only be hurt by expensive, cumbersome, security measures, which are not necessary to serve that primary market.

    And in any case, what good would a thumbprint do? If it’s going to a country without a centralized fingerprint database, what would you do with it?

  13. prag2 says:

    This would risk alienating the majority of their customer base.

  14. TheMansfieldMauler says:

    The man knew the e-mail was bogus, but played along for a bit so that he could provide enough information to Western Union in the hopes that it would be able to set up a sting and na[b] the scammer.

    Everyone thinks they live in a Hawaii 5-0 episode these days. And the new version of Hawaii 5-0 no less, where magic computers show you real-time high res pictures from freely controllable satellites.

  15. KommonCentz says:

    I don’t think that the burden of protecting people from their own stupidity should be placed on Western Union. Seriously – people should be responsible for their own behavior. This isn’t a strong arm robbery where people don’t have a choice but to give money. If you are dumb enough to send money to strangers, you deserve what you get.
    I can’t wait for the first article to appear how someone with a Legitimate reason to send money gets denied by western unions new enhanced fraud protection….

  16. Nogling says:

    I’m a Western Union agent. We have two regular customers who have fallen for every Craigslist scam in the book – and no matter how much money they lose, no matter how many times we tell them that it’s a scam, the only way we were able to get them to stop was to deny them service. Which means they just bounced to the next Western Union office, and we lost out on hundreds of dollars of commission, because they’re no longer sending thousands of dollars every month.

    Western Union is not responsible for protecting people from their own stupidity. There are signs posted EVERYWHERE about not sending money to people you don’t know personally, not sending money to distressed relatives overseas until you’ve actually heard from the person in question, not sending money to pay fees on lottery/contest wins, etc etc etc – there are pamphlets, too, right next to the forms. And guess what? NO ONE FUCKING READS THEM.

    It frustrates me, especially when I’m forced to choose between a nice bonus check and protecting idiots – and my “protection” doesn’t actually help.

    The people who are taken in by scam artists will find a way to be taken in. Given the volume of fraudulent checks, fraudulent wire transfers, etc that pass through my little bulletproof glass window, I should really consider a career as a Craigslist scammer. I’m make more money.

    • Nogling says:

      And apparently I’m practicing the poor grammar already….*sigh*

      “I’d” make more money, not “I’m” make more money.

    • elangomatt says:

      I’m glad someone like you posted this. There is only so much that Western Union can do to prevent fraud. When the person sending the money is being scammed, they usually will not listen to reason. I used to be a Western Union agent too so I know what it is like. What do people expect agents to do? Deliver the Spanish inquisition to every person wanting to send money to another country? I guess requiring a photo be taken when sending and receiving money, but even that would require massive upgrades and no doubt would be a nightmare trying to figure out how that would work with the laws of each individual country.

    • mianne prays her parents outlive the TSA says:

      You could post ads on Craigslist: How to stopped getting ripped off by online scammers! – Send $100 Western Union for the secrets!

      Then just mail one of those pamphlets gathering dust on your counter to them.

      Wait a minute! I think I’ve just landed a new sca…err job… Forget I said anything–nothing to see here.

  17. Flik says:

    I feel bad for people who fall for these scams, especially when looks really close to the “real thing”. Still, Western Union isn’t responsible for keeping the gullible from sending their money away.

    I really like the idea of maybe mentioning something along the lines of “Are you really SURE you want to send $900 to Prince Ngububu in Nigeria? Do you know his Royal Highness? Are you certain that he’s not trying to steal you money?” Knowing what I know from my past there, I do this for anyone who asks me about such scams via PayPal.

    If the rube still insists on making the transfer, well then… may God have mercy on his pocketbook.

  18. AllanG54 says:

    This is why the USPS has postal inspectors and police. Western Union, being a private company is under no obligation to have these safeguards. Banks take thumb prints and ID because being insured by the FDIC, if a bank has a loss it becomes a federal crime and they have to help in the prosecution as well as safeguard any evidence there might be.

  19. brinks says:

    I had to use Western Union once. A friend was arrested, and his mom had the bail money but lived out of state. Aside from a circumstance like that one, and immigrants wiring money home, what else are people using Western Union for?

    • elangomatt says:

      A lot of people actually use it to pay bills too. I remember quite a few people used to pay Toyota Finance or some big mortgage company whose name I am blocking on right now. There is also a lot of people sending money to family in other parts of the US too. A lot of the money I used to send as a WU agent was going down to Mexico, I have often wondered how many of those senders were illegal aliens since no ID was required to send money at all. I don’t know if the no ID to send money rule (under a certain $$ amount) has changed at all, but I always thought it was kinda weird

    • Cat says:

      Immigrants wiring money home usually have much better options. WU is incredibly expensive.

      Illegal immigrants, maybe not.

  20. Nidoking says:

    Thumbprints? Photos? Just make them show their receipt at the door!

  21. Malik says:

    “just as we put up with all those security hassles when we fly,”

    “Put up with”??

    People are contantly complaining about the security hassles that they have to go through, and that is to prevent someone from blowing up your plane. You think people are going to tolerate it to prevent a scammer from cheating an idiot out of their money?

  22. hahatanka says:

    Never buy a WU money order. They make it impossible to get a refund if you don’t need the money order or it’s lost. 1st they demand a $15 processing fee. I finally gave up on my unused money order.
    Need a money order, go to the Post Office.

    I used to work for a big phone company. Amazing the number of people who sent in money orders with only the company name on the m.o. Many still had the receipt still attached. Of course no return address on the envelope. “For security” WU wouldn’t give us a list of store numbers, so if someone called in about a m.o. and could tell us the store they used, we might have been able to help the customer.

  23. Parnassus says:

    I had a customer who was sending a Moneygram. I went through the usual questions (Do you know this person personally? Are you sure its the person you think it is?) and he told me everything was fine. I replied that was good because there was a lot of scamming going around with people who pretended to be a friend and asked for money to be sent. He repeated that everything was okay because it was his friend and they’d discussed the problem and thanked me for the information. I put the Moneygram through and he came back a few hours later to retrieve the money since Moneygram refused to deliver the money since they had reason to believe it was a scam. I asked him if he’d gotten in touch with his friend because if it hadn’t been a scam he’d be wondering what happened. The customer then said that he didn’t know this person very well, hadn’t talked to him in years and he had been surprised when an email appeared asking for money!

  24. glasscocked says:

    Stop using Western Union. Problem solved.

  25. soj4life says:

    Does western union really do that much legitimate business? When I worked in a bank before I had a customer that got a lottery letter and forced wu to send the money out, even though wu caught it as fraud. If people took the time to realize that these are scams, this wouldn’t happen.