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My understanding of cheque and similar scams is that

  • you receive a promise of payment (a cheque for instance)
  • you give something of value in exchange (an item, or you wire money, ...)

Essentially the promise is wrong (in the case of a cheque it would bounce back).

I recently read about a case where someone received unexpected money to his account. The comments were "do not touch it, it may be a scam".

I understand the "do not touch it part": this is not his money and it can be withdrawn from his account by the bank (typically, a wiring mistake) so he should not use it to be able to give it back.

I do not understand the "scam" part: if nobody contacts him (asking to send back the money, keeping a commission for "the trouble" - and it was the case in that article: nobody contacted him) what can go wrong?

5

You asked,

what can go wrong?

It's hard to give a specific answer, other than to say, "lots of things."

It's important to remember that scams generally don't happen in a vacuum. That is, scammers are typically running many different kinds of scams and using them to fuel each other. If someone deposits money into your account, it's likely that it was stolen/scammed money, or "fake" money generated from a different scam against a different victim.

For instance, a scammer may use social engineering to obtain a username and password for someone's online banking login. Then, using that account, they install the bank's mobile app on their own phone, and use the bank's remote deposit capture feature to make a deposit of a fake or stolen check. By leveraging things they know about how that particular bank clears a check, they then transfer some or all of the deposited funds to a different account, before the bank is able to discover the scam and reverse the deposit.

Essentially, that attack gives the scammer a small amount of fake money to play with. They can then deposit this fake money into another account, and con that victim into doing something with the money (i.e. transferring it to yet another account, sending it via un-traceable or non-reversible methods to another account, so on).

Generally speaking though, scams are built around chaining victims together to accomplish two core features:

  • Hiding the identity of the scammer. By gaining access to a victim's account, the scammer can use that account to carry out a scam, without it being traceable to them.
  • Exploiting the differences in how various transfer/deposit/payment features are (or are not) reversible and the timing differences between them in terms of how funds are cleared - this allows a scammer to turn fake money into real money.

To bring this full circle and answer the question in your title,

How does “you got some unknown money” scam work?

The scam works for the scammer when they combine the deposit into your account with various other scams against various other accounts. Your deposit may be part of the "final" scam, in which case the scammer may contact you directly and ask you to do something with the money (sometimes this is via a phishing email or phone call meant to impersonate your bank). Or, your random deposit may be a middle step in a larger scam, in which case it may disappear on it's own - when the original transaction is reversed by the scammer in order to pull money back into the originating account, or when the scammer breaks into your account and moves the money out themselves via another means.

Of course, it's also possible that the money was deposited by accident or by mistake. At the end of the day, if unexpected money shows up, the best thing to do is contact your bank and let them know, then comply with their instructions.

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dwizum's excellent answer covers all the background of why this may be part of a scam without necessarily having heard from the scammer. Addressing specifically:

I do not understand the "scam" part

Remember, the full advice was "do not touch it, it may be a scam".

It is, of course, entirely possible that receipt of "unknown money" has nothing to do with a scam: someone could have entered the wrong details when initiating the transaction; there could have been a processing error of some kind.

However, in this day and age it is increasingly likely that it could be part of a scam, and the purpose of the "it may be a scam" part is to raise awareness of this possibility in the mind of the person who received the money. That is, to put them on "high alert" should they subsequently receive any communication regarding the unknown money.

It may not be a scam, but it is better to be safe than sorry.

  • 1
    This is a very good point of clarification. On the same note, essentially, it doesn't matter if it's a scam, or a "mistake" - and you, as an individual, may never actually know. No matter the back story or origin, if "unexpected" money shows up, you should contact your bank and either let them handle it or let them direct you on how to handle it. – dwizum Aug 7 at 12:44
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The scammer is not using his money. From what I have seen, they hack someone else account and then send various amount of money to different accounts.
Then they ask bank for return of the money send. Usually banks don't return them automatic but ask "sender" to ask the receiver to return the money allowing for direct contact.
Then the scammer in request ask for return to different account then the money was send from.

Second way is to send various amount of money to different accounts with the biggest amount send to scammer (but it's usually done by virus that someone have and compromised their account). This is done to blur the amount of accounts and make it harder to pinpoint which one to pursue. In such cases bank will also allow the owner of compromised account to ask for return as they usually state that they don't take responsibility for "giving account password and login to third parties".

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