The email came from an acquaintance who had a respectable management job in Washington. “I’m sorry for this emergency,” she wrote, “but I just have to let you know about my present predicament.”
She’d been called away on a trip to the Philippines. Everything was fine until she was “attacked on my way back to the hotel.”
“I wasn’t hurt, but I lost my money, bank cards, mobile phone and my bag in the course of this attack,” she adds.
Bottom line: She needed money to get back home, and wanted me to help. Could I wire her money?
Obviously, I didn’t — and you probably wouldn’t have, either.
Turns out my friend had inadvertently given her password to a criminal through a “phishing” attack and they were looking for suckers to send them money.
Fortunately, the email was filled with grammatical errors that betrayed the identity of the scammer.
But plenty of people fall for a similar trap. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but I deal with them almost every day: consumers who wire money to people they think they know.
Scammers love to use wire payments because they’re rarely caught. It’s so prevalent that companies such as Western Union warn their customers about the dangers of wiring money to people they don’t know or have never met.
As I review some of my most frustrating cases of the past year, I see that many of them have one thing in common. Many of them ended when they wired money somewhere. I just tried to help someone who lost more than $30,000 to a scammer. Unfortunately, the cash can’t be recovered.
I’m spending the next few posts talking about the things you should never ever do as a customer. Topping the list: wiring money. If you read only one of my stories this month, I hope it’s this one.
I’m tempted to tell you to never wire money, but that’s not entirely reasonable. In some countries, money wiring is common, although there are some protections in place to prevent fraud.
Here are a few times when you should never ever wire funds:
To an acquaintance or a “friend” who is having an emergency that can’t be verified.
That will short-circuit the phishing scam I mentioned earlier. Spotting these scams is fairly easy. The emails asking for help are written in bad English and the circumstances of the crisis are preposterous. It’s an “unexpected” trip to a faraway place, often completely out of character for your friend. Don’t fall for it.
To anyone who insists the “only” way to pay is to wire.
I’ve been dealing with another type of scam that affects people who rent vacation homes. They were told they could only wire the money, and that if they didn’t do it soon, the opportunity would be lost. That’s a bad sign.
To anything that looks too good to be true.
That includes people who call you on the phone, claiming you’ve won the lottery or that a long-lost relative died and left you millions of dollars. PS: the only way to “claim” your winnings is to wire money for “taxes” or for a processing fee. Run, don’t walk!
To anyone who gives you a check and asks you to wire part of it.
Not so long ago I dealt with a scammer who sent a fake check to someone for an apartment rental. The check was for too much, by a few hundred dollars. No problem, the scammer said — could you wire me the difference. You can probably guess what happened next, right?
To anyone you don’t know personally.
Better yet, don’t wire money to anyone you’re not related to (I know, it might be impractical).
If you send money, make sure there’s a mechanism to un-send: a dispute process or a third party that can mediate a disagreement. When you wire money, it’s gone for good. And no one — not even a well-connected consumer advocate — can get it back.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.