Published: August 23, 2023
5 min read

Wire transfer scams: How to spot this age-old scam

Emma McGowan

Staff writer

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A smiling woman inserts her credit or debit card into an ATM after learning how to avoid wire transfer scams.

Wire transfer scams coax unsuspecting people into sending money to criminals. A scammer might pretend to be a legitimate organization, like a bank or a federal agency, or craft emotional stories to gain donations. This guide will explore how to spot wire transfer scams—and how an identity theft protection service like LifeLock Standard can help prevent this type of fraud.

What are wire transfer scams?

Wire transfer scams are all about deception; criminals target unsuspecting people and try to trick them into wiring large sums of money. This is also known as wire fraud. If the fraud is successful, recovering lost funds is nearly impossible since those funds were technically given willingly. Payment apps like Cash App and Venmo are fully aware of wire transfer scams—and both apps boast a healthy suite of safety features to protect users.

The history of wire transfer scams stretches back to the early days of the internet, when criminals impersonated princes from foreign countries and asked users to send funds for various reasons. Bad actors find new ways to enact this age-old scam as time and technology advance. 

How common are wire transfer scams?

The precise number of wire fraud scams that occur each year isn’t entirely clear, but the FBI annually reports millions of dollars in losses due to fraudulent online activity. Reports from the Federal Trade Commission help paint a clearer picture of how frequently wire transfer scams occur: Adults ages 70-79 reported losing an average of $800 to fraud in 2021 alone.

An infographic details five types of wire transfer scams.

5 common types of wire transfer scams

Variety is one of the reasons wire fraud is so prevalent. Criminals might impersonate trusted organizations like banks, collection agencies, or even churches. Conversely, they might make up elaborate and emotional stories to sell a con. Thankfully, there’s also a lot of information about some of the most infamous money transfer scams.

419: The “Nigerian prince” scam

This is one of the oldest and most well-known tricks in the book. If you receive a strange email from someone claiming to be an imprisoned prince or king, be wary. Chances are they’ll ask you to wire over bail money with the promise of repaying you later. If the scammer gets your funds, they’ll promptly vanish from the face of the Earth.

The number “419” refers to the Nigerian Criminal Code, as many early scammers claimed to be from Nigeria.

Romance scams

Online dating sites can pave the way for long-term relationships—or devious schemes like romance scams. Here, cybercriminals create fake profiles, prey on vulnerable parties who are seeking romantic relationships, and convince others to send them money with elaborate stories. This con can go on for months or even years if left unchecked.

Real estate scams

Browsing for properties online is incredibly convenient and allows you to quickly speak with real estate agents. However, scammers can sneak onto popular rental sites and entice users to pay for properties they don’t even own. Real estate scams can also occur when criminals use fake realty profiles, or list properties that aren’t physically available to buy or rent.

Tech support scams

As previously mentioned, tech support scams primarily target older adults who may not be particularly tech-savvy. Criminals may cold call or email someone and claim that one of their devices is compromised. The scammer will then “fix” the problem for a fee—provided you share your credit card information with them first.

Lottery scams

Congratulations! You’ve won millions of dollars for simply breathing! All you need to do to claim this extravagant prize is pay a “small transaction fee.” This scenario is one of the most common ways a lottery scam can unfold. More brazen scammers might just try to sell phony lottery tickets.

Signs of a wire transfer scam

Fake wire fraud scams are relatively easy to spot if you know what to look for. Here are some of the most common signs.

Sign #1: Someone suddenly asks you for money. An unexpected payment request could be a major red flag—even if it seems to be from a loved one or colleague. This can happen if a data breach occurs at a company you work for.

Sign #2: Immediate and brief deadlines. Short payment windows can be indicators of bank transfer scams. That letter or email urging you to send over large sums of money within a suspiciously short timeframe almost certainly came from a scammer. If you are trying to buy something from Craigslist and they ask you to pay with a wire transfer, it could also be a part of a Craigslist scam. Zelle scams are becoming more common getting users to transfer money with no way of retrieving it.

Sign #3: The other person refuses phone calls. If you can’t reach the person who’s asking for money, that may be a sign of a scam.

Sign #4: Grammatical and spelling errors. Carefully inspect the wording of the messages and requests you receive online. Bad grammar or spelling can be a warning of an impending wire transfer scam.

4 safety tips for wire transfer scams 

An image showcases safety tips for avoiding wire transfer scams.

Wire transfer scams can come in many forms, but it’s not impossible to protect yourself from them. You can always fall back on the following safety tips the next time you think fraud is at play.

  1. Ignore calls from unknown numbers: Scammers and robocalls could be on the other end.
  2. Don’t send money to unknown parties: Verify profiles that you interact with on peer-to-peer payment apps.
  3. Consult a lawyer: Professionals can spot inconsistencies within fake documents.
  4. Sign up for identity theft protection: These services make it difficult for thieves to steal your identity or your personal information.

Protecting your funds and your identity doesn’t have to be a reactive response. Taking proactive steps can drastically decrease the likelihood of experiencing a wire transfer scam. 

Reduce the risk of wire transfer scams with LifeLock Standard

Vigilance is a tried-and-true defense against wire transfer scams. Exercise caution when exchanging money with people online—especially if you don't know them. Scammers need access to your personal information for many of their schemes to even start. LifeLock Standard offers services that can help protect your information, such as privacy and dark web monitoring tools.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. LifeLock offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about cyber safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.

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