My online girlfriend from Ghana sent me cash in the mail and asked me to use Western Union to transfer the money to a 3rd party. In return I will be mailed 2 apple iPhones which I am to send to her.

Is this a scam?

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    So if you forward the money to a 3rd party, and you forward the iPhones back to her, what in this scheme is supposed to be for you? – void_ptr Sep 10 '19 at 1:21
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    money laundering and handling stolen goods charges would seem to be on the cards. Unless the cash is forged in which case that too. Then again maybe this is just to see how willing you are, next time you might be asked to western union the cash while it's still "in the post" – Robert Longson Sep 10 '19 at 2:39
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    Why didn't she wire the money via WU to the people with the iPhones? – RonJohn Sep 10 '19 at 3:44
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    Besides, as much as you want to believe otherwise, there's no such thing as a girlfriend you haven't ever met face to face. – RonJohn Sep 10 '19 at 3:46
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    That might be highest red-flag content of any single sentence I've seen here - "online girlfriend", "Ghana", "mail", "cash", "Western Union", "transfer", and "3rd party". – Nuclear Hoagie Sep 10 '19 at 17:46

You asked,

Is this a scam?

The answer is yes. It is a scam.

There are many scenarios that may be playing out here:

  • The iPhones are stolen. The scammer is legitimately interested in obtaining them, but they do not want a paper trail linking them to the stolen goods. So, they get you to wash the money for them. Now, when the FBI starts tracing things back, they will come knocking on your door, instead of the scammer's door. And since the scammer is likely obscuring details about their identity to you, you will be left empty handed in terms of who to point the authorities at.
  • The iPhones aren't even real, and this whole deal is just to launder money that is not legitimate. You are acting as a money mule to turn dirty cash into clean money. Final outcome is the same as the first version.
  • iPhones aren't real, and the cash is counterfeit. Either you are caught by Western Union, or someone down the line catches it, and you are left responsible (same as above again).
  • iPhones and cash are secondary, and this is just a test to see if you're gullible. Scammers who want to pull off big scams usually don't lead with the big scam because that would be risky for them. Instead, they test their marks by leading with a smaller scam to see if they're gullible. The smaller scams often include some really obvious red flags indicating that the tasks you're asked to do are not legitimate. The scammers figure that if you'll fall for that small, obvious scam, you will probably fall for the big scam too. The fact that you fell for the small scam also gives them the potential to leverage you into doing other scams, if you do catch on. They may threaten to turn you in for something related to the first scam, as a way to pressure you into doing another scam. (It's unlikely that a scammer would ever turn a victim in, and the threats may not even be accurate in terms of what they're threatening to turn you in for, but it's easy for a manipulative scammer to play on someone's fears once they're on the hook.)

The people sending and receiving the iPhones and/or the cash may or may not be "in" on the scam. It's dangerous for a scammer to recruit people to knowingly help them do things like this, so often times, the other endpoints a victim is working with are just other victims who have been tricked into participating. So, for instance, that cash you receive may have actually come from another victim, and same with the iPhones. This way, the scammer is even more protected from being found out. For instance, the person sending you the cash may think that they've been hired to be a "payroll administrator" who is responsible for receiving electronic transfers into their own personal account, withdrawing cash, and mailing it to other people. Then the cash shows up at your address, and meanwhile the scammer finds a way to reverse the electronic payment to the other victim, which results in their account being overdrawn, and that victim is left on the hook with the bank. Meanwhile, you are innocently taking that cash to Western Union and wiring it to someone that the scammer can exploit for some other purpose. Once the first victim reports the fraud, the police will track you down, and your girlfriend will vanish into thin air. You and the other victim will be left responsible, both financially and legally.

So - Yes - this is definitely a scam. The best course of action is to cut off all contact with this person. If you have given them any sensitive info, keep yourself protected (monitor your credit, change passwords, alert your bank as appropriate). If any cash or goods have actually changed hands, report this to the authorities and follow their instructions. The US government maintains a website listing resources for reporting scams and fraud.

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    "The people sending and receiving the iPhones and/or the cash may or may not be "in" on the scam." Upvoted vigorously for this. This stuff can get really messy and confusing when the people you deal with believe it's legitimate. You can find plenty of examples in the scam questions on this site where you see the potential other end of this. People are "hired" for "payroll processing" jobs which basically just involve moving the dirty money around for the scammers; then both parties think they are legit while the scammer pulls all the strings. – JMac Sep 10 '19 at 18:35
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    Re. your last bullet point of using a small scam to lure people into bigger scams: as well as weeding out the non-gullible, if you take part in the smaller scam, they now have leverage over you (a threat of legal trouble) to encourage/compel you to take part in larger scams: the classic "you can't back out now, you're already in it... you know those iPhones were dodgy, if you don't help with XXX we'll just let the authorities know what you've been doing". Of course, they're never likely to actually report someone, but the threat of doing so will be enough for most victims. – TripeHound Sep 11 '19 at 7:12
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    Thanks for the feedback you two. I incorporated some of those details into the answer. – dwizum Sep 11 '19 at 14:00

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