What is Wire Fraud?

What do email scams, text message scams, and scam calls have in common? They're all forms of wire fraud.


Jessica Lee
Updated 6 May 2022
What is Wire Fraud?

United States Scam & Fraud Statistics 2020


$3.3 billion total fraud losses
4.7 million fraud reports

1.4 million reports of identity theft

Source: 2019-20 Consumer Sentinel Report

Sections on this page
  1. What is Considered Wire Fraud?
  2. Red Flags of Wire Fraud
  3. Charges for Wire Fraud
  4. Who Is At Risk of Falling Victim to Wire Fraud?

Wire fraud is a broad term that spans any scam or defrauding scheme wherein the scammer uses technology as their means of communication. For instance, a scammer may communicate through email, phone, radio, or even television. Wire fraud is similar to mail fraud. The only difference between the two scams is the mode of communication.

Since the definition of wire and mail fraud is inherently broad, it’s easy for prosecutors to charge and convict offenders in court. On the contrary, more specific charges like investment fraud are harder to prove in court because prosecutors need hard evidence of participation in a scheme. 

What is Considered Wire Fraud?

So, how does one determine whether wire fraud schemes have been committed? Typically, prosecutors only have to prove four factors took place to classify a scam as wire fraud:

  • Intent to defraud the victim
  • Usage of a form of technology to communicate
  • Intentional deception
  • Usage of this form of communication to further their scam

A scammer can still be convicted of wire fraud charges even if the victim never lost any money or valuables. Simply participating in the planning and elements of wire fraud is still considered wire fraud.

Other examples of mail fraud, which can also be considered wire fraud, include:

It’s important to remember that wire fraud and product exaggeration are different. If a salesperson is trying to sell you their product and mentions it’s the best one on the market, this isn’t considered wire fraud. Technically, it’s not considered a lie because the salesperson may believe it’s true.

On the other hand, if the salesperson tries to sell you a necklace, for example, and tells you it’s a real diamond when it isn’t, then it would be considered fraud because the person is intentionally deceptive about the product value.

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Red Flags of Wire Fraud

Cybercriminals have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to try and get you to wiring funds to them. But if you’re aware of their tactics, you can avoid falling victim to their schemes and protect your money.

Below are common wire fraud red flags to watch out for:

  • Being required to wire money to complete a transaction.
  • You are sent a check for more than you are owed. Con artists will sometimes send a fake check over the agreed upon amount in order to cover so-called processing fees, shipping costs or other expenses.
  • You are asked to wire back the amount the scammer overpaid on the check.
  • You are told you need to provide them with a confirmation code or money transfer control number (MTCN) in order to withdraw your money. This is a lie; once the money has been wired, you can collect it immediately.
  • The other person is contacting you from overseas.
  • Any correspondence you receive includes spelling and grammatical errors.
  • The seller or buyer is pushy to make the transaction fast.
  • The other party will only communicate with you via email and not on the phone.

Charges for Wire Fraud

Each act of wire fraud is considered a separate charge, so every email or phone call a scammer made with deceptive information counts as a single charge. For instance, if a scammer made 20 phone calls and lied about their product, they could be charged with 20 counts of wire fraud.

Furthermore, each count of wire fraud comes with approximately a 20-year sentence. These can be even longer if the scheme involved a financial institution or took advantage of a natural disaster or emergency.

Attorney Mark Theoharis explains how political figures who accept bribes through electronic money transfers or receive calls about what they should or shouldn’t do in office are also at risk of being found guilty of wire fraud.

Politicians provide a public service and have a duty to serve all members of a community. In turn, they receive a salary paid for by the people. When a politician accepts any bribe, they’re intentionally being deceptive and not working on behalf of all community members. As such, they’re committing wire fraud.  

Who Is At Risk of Falling Victim to Wire Fraud?

According to the Congressional Research Service, the mail fraud statute, which Congress enacted in 1872, initially sought to protect people who were less educated, such as farmers, from being defrauded or scammed by city folk.

Similarly, in 1952, Congress enacted the wire fraud statute to protect people who are not technology-savvy because they’re at a high risk of being scammed.

Scammers know that for their scams to be successful, they must target the most vulnerable populations. Some populations at a higher risk for wire or mail fraud include the:

  • Elderly: Higher risk because they’re less likely to check if websites are legit or if the person sending the email is genuine.
  • Veterans: This group is usually in need of services like health care or counseling. Scammers take advantage of veterans by sending exclusive offers full of empty promises.
  • Unemployed: This group might be desperate for employment and tend to let their guard down or participate in unlikely behaviors to secure employment. Scammers will send emails promising new job opportunities in an attempt to steal personal information or even money.
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