Last year I wrote about an Ashley Borough man scammed out of $650 after using a money transfer service to buy what he thought were tickets to a football game.
He had purchased a money transfer card at the local drug store to pay for four Steelers tickets he’d seen advertised on Craigslist. The seller instructed him to call her with the numbers on the card and promised to email him the tickets.
The buyer did what he was told, but the seller took the numbers — as valuable as the card itself — and disappeared, never sending the tickets. The numbers gave the woman the ability to transfer that $650 to wherever or whomever she wanted, anonymously.
Let’s face it: Rip-offs involving money transfer systems, such as Western Union and MoneyGram, have become as common as houseflies. Craigslist, the online classified site where con artists fish for victims, even posts a warning at the bottom of every ad, warning shoppers not to wire funds to people they don’t know.
“Crooks like their victims to use wire transfers because the money moves fast and they can take the money and run before the victim discovers the truth,” said Michael Benardo, manager of the FDIC’s Cyber Fraud and Financial Crimes Section. “Con artists also know that the transaction is difficult to reverse, and the money is difficult to get back.”
Last week Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane’s office announced a $13 million settlement with MoneyGram Payment Systems, Inc., a money transfer service. The settlement, in which 48 other states and the District of Columbia also participated, was prompted by complaints from consumers who used MoneyGram to unwittingly send money to crooks.
Most of the swindles have been around so long it’s hard to believe anyone still falls for them. They include the foreign lottery scam, where a fraudster tells the victim he or she has won a lottery or contest but must wire money to cover “fees,” “taxes” or other charges.
Other oldies-but-goodies include the employment and “business opportunity” scams, offering work-at-home jobs, such as mystery shoppers, which require the applicant to wire money in advance.
Social media has opened up a whole new world to thieves. Take the “romance” scam, where a fraudster creates a fake online profile using someone else’s picture – sometimes even using stolen pictures of real military personnel. Once they make contact with a prospect, they quickly profess undying love and then ask for money – to be immediately wired via Western Union or MoneyGram — because their wallet was stolen.
How can you protect yourself?
It’s simple: Never wire money to people you don’t know, regardless of their story. Be especially careful with online transactions, where the other person can remain anonymous.
Simply put, a stranger asking you to wire money is a red flag. Don’t fall for it.
Christine Young is the Times Leader’s Consumer Watchdog. She can be reached at ConsumerWatchdog@timesleader.com. Her column appears weekly.