A Disturbing Travel E-Mail Scam and the Western Union Problem

Posted on / by Alex Berger
A Surly Sheep

There’s probably not a week that goes by that you don’t find at least one e-mail scam in your inbox.  Most play on the desire to win the lottery, greed, or a less-than-selfless desire to help strangers out.  The most famous of these are the classic Nigerian e-mail scams. You know the drill – some prince/king/billionaire/princess has died or needs your help and has a ton of money waiting for you. All that’s needed are your contact details/bank account details/ or a small down-payment to help get the money out. These mostly prey on the profoundly gullible, technologically un-savvy, or elderly and believe it or not, they’ve actually been the subject of a fairly significant amount of academic research.  Some of that research has suggested that these scammers make their e-mail approaches intentionally cliche (eg: ever wonder why they ALL supposedly come from Nigeria?) because it automatically weeds out the more skeptical or technologically savvy recipients.  In short, they’re perverse and disgusting but ultimately somewhat harmless to the vast majority of internet users.

The e-mail I woke up to this morning, on the other hand, was vastly different. It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s brutally exploitative, it’s well researched, and it had just enough truth to it that even I, as a hardened internet veteran, sent a just-in-case Facebook message to ensure all was ok. It’s a variation on the “Grandparent Scam” but with a travel twist.Western Union Travel Scam Email

The E-mail, which I’ve translated roughly from Danish to English below (thanks Google!), came from an acquaintance here in Denmark who does quite a bit of traveling.

I hope this reaches you in time, I took a trip to Limassol, Cyprus. And I had my bag stolen at the bus station. It contains all of my important elements, telephone, money and passports. I have tried to fix it, so I need you to lend me 17,400 kr to sort me out of this predicament, and the sum will be paid back as soon as I return from Cyprus. Western Union is the fastest way to receive the money. I can send you information on how to transfer money to me and I await your response.



Now, there are all of the obvious red flags – why would she need that much money ($2,600 USD), why wouldn’t she contact her family or consulate, the overly formal grammar, that it was sent out en-masse via a BCC, and then of course the mention of Western Union (more on this later).  BUT, at the same time I think even the most hardened travelers harbor and can’t help but nurture that inner fear of getting robbed and losing everything while abroad.

After-all, it’s crippling enough when your primary Credit Card gets shut down, lost or stops working.  But, what happens if you get robbed or have a bag stolen and get completely cleaned out? Paralysis and just enough panic to send a mass e-mail blast for help from a borrowed stranger’s phone where you don’t have time to go in detail?  Possibly.  Added to this, the location itself fits with where a lot of Danes are traveling this time of year, and the e-mail was written in Danish vs. bad English (though I’m sure Danes looking at the e-mail would feel it was far from native Danish).  Also, a prime area to get robbed and have your bag stolen? Definitely a bus station.  The fact that the e-mail got the currency right and asked for DKK, as the real person might have, also helped add to the believability of the e-mail. Added to that, the e-mail came from her e-mail account, which had been hacked, and included her typical signature and other related details including the traditional Danish sign off.

So, where does that leave things?  While I’m a casual acquaintance, I can only imagine how this might be received by friends or family that know her better but who are not in daily contact. While it’s less likely anyone would have sent money, it does have the potential to cause a lot of fear and concern. Especially on days like today where the travel disasters in Nepal are fresh in our minds and have just been re-iterated with a second wave of devastating earthquakes.

Scary and something to be aware of both as a traveler and as people with friends and family who are also regularly traveling.

Crab Traps

The Western Union Problem

One aspect of this scam scraped off an old scab:  When I first arrived in Copenhagen the vast majority of the apartment inquiries I responded to on Craigslist (this was before I discovered the dominant local Danish competitor DBA) ended up being scams. At the center of nearly every single one of these rental scams was a Western Union money transfer request. With Copenhagen’s brutal housing market these scams are prolific.  Unfortunately, they’re also much more effective than emails like the one above.  If you put 10 folks together (foreigners and Danes from outside Copenhagen alike) in a room together, it’s more than likely that at least one has been taken by some sort of accommodation scam. More recently when I went to buy and sell some camera gear using DBA I once again ran into a series of suspicious inquiries and responses. These used burner text messages that included inquiries and e-mails to continue the conversation.  In some cases when I continued it to feel it out, Western Union again came up time and time again.

Which leaves me more than a little frustrated and annoyed. While I haven’t fallen victim to one of these scams, I do know people who have and the response from the Police is always the same. These fraudsters get away with it time, and time again and there’s almost nothing the Police can do.  In no small part because many are in another country and working remotely.

At the end of the day, it seems like something should be done about the company responsible for, profiting from, and grossly enabling these fraud scams. Now, don’t get me wrong, Western Union has made a feeble attempt at “prevention” by way of creating guides to avoid fraud such as this one and this one.  It’s also easy enough to avoid scams by simply disregarding anything that mentions Western Union.  But, at the same time, that doesn’t eliminate the large amount of time that gets swallowed during the bait and fish stage of these scams.  Bringing a bit of accountability to Western Union’s system really shouldn’t be that difficult. Perhaps it’s time for local authorities to crack down and for the company to step up and put safeguards in place?  I suspect if they were the ones accountable for the fraud their system enables, and not profiting heavily from it, we’d see rapid changes.

Regardless, spread the word, increase awareness, and I hope this helps some of you avoid any heartache, unwarranted concern, or getting duped in the future.

Open roads, safe travels.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


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