How to Recognize and Avoid Wire Transfer Scams

December 15, 2023 4 mins

Wire transfers are a great way to send money quickly — especially large amounts — for things like buying a home. However, fraudsters also use them to steal. Wire transfer scams target individuals or businesses into sending money through wire transfers to illegitimate recipients.

These scams are especially attractive to fraudsters because wire transfers are processed quickly — typically within minutes or hours. It’s also usually difficult for victims to recover their lost funds since it’s nearly impossible to identify who collected the money.

Types of wire transfer scams

In most cases, the fraudster tells you a wire transfer is the only way to pay — and they want you to send funds right away. Here’s how some of the most common wire scams work.

  • Real estate wire transfer scams. Cyber criminals can use public records about property owners and real estate to send targeted, timely emails or text messages to a real estate agent, real estate attorney, title agent, or even a buyer. These phishing emails or “smishing” text messages may include a link that installs malware or obtains login credentials so someone else can take control of the computer or email account. Once the fraudster learns about an upcoming transfer, they will impersonate the business representative and divert the wire transfer to their own account.
  • Apartment and vacation rental scams. These scams have a similar premise: An imposter runs an ad for a fake apartment or vacation rental and has applicants wire over money to cover the application fee, security deposit, or first month’s rent without ever seeing the property in person. The rental is fake, but the fraudster keeps the money.
  • Family emergency wire transfer scams. Someone pretending to be your friend or relative and begs you help them with an emergency. They might say they’re stuck in jail, a hospital, or in a foreign country — and they need you to wire money right away.
  • Fake check wire transfer scams. In this scheme, a customer sends you a check, has you deposit it, and then asks you to wire the money back to them or into another account. The catch? It’s a fake check. It can take weeks for a bank to flag the fraudulent check but when they do, they’ll want the money back.
  • Overseas wire transfer scams. It may be part of a romance scam or a charity scam, or simply an offer that’s too good to be true — a royal prince who needs your help, perhaps — but foreign scammers may target you with a request to wire funds overseas. The plea is usually compelling, but wiring money overseas without confirming the story is always a bad idea.
  • “Secret shopper” scams. Be skeptical of ads for secret shoppers or mystery shopping jobs — or any job listings that use terms like “money transfers,” “wiring funds,” or “foreign agent agreements.” Recruiters who guarantee work, charge a fee, sell directories of companies that provide mystery shoppers, or advertise in a “help wanted” section or by email are typically running scams. If you answer an ad and the recruiter asks you to wire money and/or share your personal information, it’s time to walk away.

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Wiring money is like sending cash, so never wire money to a stranger — no matter how convincing they are, says the Federal Trade Commission. Once you send it, it’s probably gone for good.”

How to protect yourself from wire transfer scams

Wiring money is like sending cash, so never wire money to a stranger — no matter how convincing they are, says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Once you send it, it’s probably gone for good.
 
In addition, the FTC warns against wiring money to someone:

  • you’ve never met in person
  • posing as a government employee
  • pressuring you into paying right away
  • claiming that a wire transfer is the only way to pay
  • trying to sell you something over the phone. (A credit card provides better protection if something is amiss.)

 
To protect yourself from losing money in an employment scam, never forward or transfer funds from any of your personal accounts on behalf of an employer. If a legitimate job requires you to make transfers, the money should be withdrawn from the employer’s business account. Never provide your bank account information until you are hired, and then only do so if you choose to have your paycheck deposited electronically.

What to do if you’re the victim of a wire scam

If you sent the wire transfer through your bank or credit union, contact them and report the fraudulent transfer. In some cases, they can reverse the wire transfer and return your money.
 
If you used a wire transfer company like Western Union or MoneyGram, the FTC recommends that you report the transaction to the company right away and ask for your money back.
 
If you suspect your Patelco account has been compromised, contact us as soon as possible, and refer to these trusted resources for fraud victims.

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