MoneyGram International, Inc. will pay $18 million in consumer redress to settle FTC charges that the company allowed its money transfer system to be used by fraudulent telemarketers to bilk U.S. consumers out of tens of millions of dollars.
The second-largest money transfer service in the United States, MoneyGram also will be required to implement a comprehensive anti-fraud and agent-monitoring program.
The FTC charged that between 2004 and 2008, MoneyGram agents helped crooked telemarketers and other con artists who tricked U.S. consumers into wiring more than $84 million within the United States and to Canada -- after these consumers were falsely told they had won a lottery, were hired for a secret shopper program, or were guaranteed loans.
The $84 million in losses is based on consumer complaints to MoneyGram - actual consumer losses likely are much higher.
The FTC charged that MoneyGram knew that its system was being used to defraud people but did very little about it, and that in some cases its agents in Canada actually participated in these schemes.
According to the FTC's complaint, MoneyGram knew, or avoided knowing, that about 131 of its more than 1,200 agents accounted for more than 95 percent of the fraud complaints it received in 2008 regarding money transfers to Canada; a similarly small number of agents was responsible for more than 96 percent of all fraud complaints to the company in 2006.
"Money transfer services have a responsibility to make sure their systems don't become conduits to rip people off," said David C. Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "In this case, MoneyGram not only ducked this responsibility, but also looked the other way while its agents took part in the scams."
Minneapolis, Minnesota-based MoneyGram operates through a worldwide network of approximately 180,000 agent locations in 190 countries and territories. In its complaint, the FTC charged that in recent years this network has increasingly been used by telemarketing scammers to prey on U.S. consumers. Con artists prefer to use money transfer services because they can pick up transferred money immediately, the payments are often untraceable, and victimized consumers have no chargeback rights or other recourse.
In 2007, 72 percent of all complaints received by the FTC involving Canadian-based fraud reported using money transfer services to make payments. According to a recent FTC survey cited in the complaint, at least 79 percent of all MoneyGram transfers of $1,000 or more from the United States to Canada over a four-month period in 2007 were fraud-induced.
The Commission's complaint further stated that based on the more than 20,600 fraud complaints MoneyGram itself received, U.S. consumers lost more than $44 million to cross-border money-transfer frauds between 2004 and 2008 alone. When combined with losses reported by U.S. consumers on money transfers within the United States, that number grows to $84 million.
The most prevalent of these scams were lottery or prize schemes in which consumers were told they had won thousands of dollars and just had to pay a fee for "taxes," "customs," or "insurance" to a third-party to collect their winnings. Consumers paid the fee using MoneyGram, but received nothing.
Barbara of Gaffney, S.C., got caught up in one of the scams. She tells ConsumerAffairs.com that she was contacted and told she was a multimillion-dollar winner. According to Barbara, the caller "stated that they were going to deliver the money to me personally. That changed when she said that they were having problems with that, so the transaction would have to made from bank to bank. I gave her my account number and all the bank information. In the meantime, I was still having to send money through the Western Union and MoneyGram. I sent a lot of money to them, so much so that I have been banned from using the Western Union or MoneyGram because they feel that I was involved in some type of illegal doings." She says she and her husband are on the verge of filing for bankruptcy. "Everything that we have is in jeopardy of being lost," she concludes. "All our savings is gone."
In another scheme, telemarketers told consumers they were guaranteed loans, regardless of their credit score. All they had to do was pay "insurance," "paperwork," or "processing" fees to complete the transaction. Consumers who sent funds using a money transfer service got nothing in return.
The FTC's complaint contends that MoneyGram ignored warnings from law enforcement officials and even its own employees that widespread fraud was being conducted over its network, claiming that proposals to deal with the problem were too costly and were not the company's responsibility. The company even discouraged its employees from enforcing its own fraud prevention policies or taking action against suspicious or corrupt agents. Some employees who raised concerns were disciplined or fired, the FTC charged.
In addition, at least 65 of MoneyGram's Canadian agents have been charged by Canadian or U.S. law enforcers with, or are currently being investigated for, colluding in fraud schemes that used the MoneyGram system.
The complaint charges MoneyGram with violating both the FTC Act and the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule by helping sellers or telemarketers who it knew -- or consciously avoided knowing -- were violating federal law, and for not taking adequate steps to prevent fraud.
The agreed-upon court order settling the FTC's charges bars MoneyGram from knowingly providing substantial help or support to any sellers or telemarketers that are violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule and requires it to implement a comprehensive anti-fraud program. Under the anti-fraud program, MoneyGram must conduct background checks on prospective agents; educate and train its employees about consumer fraud; institute agent monitoring; and discipline agents who don't comply with the rules.
The order also requires MoneyGram to provide a clear and conspicuous fraud warning on the front of all its money transfer forms. The order's conduct provisions apply to all MoneyGram money transfers sent worldwide from either the United States or Canada.
Finally, MoneyGram will pay the Commission $18 million, which will be used to provide redress to consumers.