What Is Wire Fraud?

Wire fraud is a crime in which a person concocts a scheme to defraud or obtain money based on false representation or promises. This criminal act is achieved using analog or digital electronic communications or an interstate communications facility. These can include a phone call, a fax, an email, a text, or social media messaging, among many other forms. Wire fraud is punishable by prison and/or fines.

Key Takeaways

  • Wire fraud is a form of criminal activity that makes use of electronic communications or digital networks.
  • This type of crime can make use of any and all forms of electronic media including telephone or fax machine, email or social media, or SMS and text messaging.
  • Wire fraud often involves communications made between state or national borders, and is punishable by both hefty fines and jail sentences.

Understanding Wire Fraud

The U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Resource Manual Section 941.18 U.S.C. 1343 cites these as the key elements of wire fraud: “1) that the defendant voluntarily and intentionally devised or participated in a scheme to defraud another out of money; 2) that the defendant did so with the intent to defraud; 3) that it was reasonably foreseeable that interstate wire communications would be used; and 4) that interstate wire communications were in fact used.”

Wire fraud is a federal crime that carries a sentence of not more than 20 years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations. The statute of limitations to bring a charge is five years unless the wire fraud targeted a financial institution, in which case the statute of limitations is 10 years. If the wire fraud is related to special circumstances, such as a presidentially declared state of emergency or targets a financial institution, it can carry a prison sentence of up to 30 years and a fine of up to $1 million. A person need not have actually defrauded someone or personally sent a fraudulent communication to be convicted of wire fraud. It is sufficient to prove the intent to defraud or acting with knowledge of fraudulent communications being sent.

A History of Wire Fraud

Not long ago, in order to perpetrate a scheme, fraudsters had to rely on the telephone and make hundreds of calls to try to hook a hapless, gullible retiree or lonely heart. The old-fashioned phone call is still employed as a means to contact prey, but today, with the awesome power of the internet to find potential victims, a fraudster’s work can be done online with a few fake postings of pictures, a tale of woe, and a promise of untold riches or everlasting love—and all of this can be written with bad grammar and spelling. If you get such messages or solicitations to send $10,000 to a stranger, delete them right away. Don’t become a victim of wire fraud.

Example of Wire Fraud

A common example of wire fraud is the Nigerian prince scam. In this scam, the scammer sends an email claiming to be a Nigerian prince who is down on his luck in some way, usually exiled, and can’t access the fortune in his Nigerian bank account. He claims to need the target to hold his millions for him and promises to give the target a handsome sum in return. The goal of the scam is to obtain the target’s financial information, which the scammer will use to access the target’s money.

Although it’s one of the oldest internet scams in the book, there are still consumers who fall for this rip-off or some variation of it. No matter what the circumstances – whether you receive an email from a wealthy traveler who needs your help getting back to the U.S. or your long-lost cousin who claims to be in an emergency situation – NEVER wire money to a stranger. Once you wire cash (especially overseas), it’s virtually impossible to reverse the transaction or trace the money. If you’re worried about your cousin, check separately. She’ll probably be safe at home, and you can alert her that her email’s been hacked.

One of these "Nigerian Princes" was recently detained and charged on December 31, 2018, and to no one's surprise, he turned out to be a 67-year-old man from Louisiana. This particular brand of the scheme first popped up in the 1980s and Americans have lost millions of dollars to the scam.