Even to this day, we keep receiving reports from importers getting scammed by anonymous traders in China. In many cases, they have one thing in common – the buyer sends money using Western Union.
While Western Union as a company is legit, it was never intended as a platform for paying Chinese suppliers.
In this article, I explain why and how scammers exploit Western Union to defraud importers, and which payment methods you should use instead.
What’s the benefit of using Western Union?
Western Union operates a global payment network that enables individuals to transfer money from one place to another, in a matter of hours. While payment services like PayPal and TransferWise offer fast payments today, that was not the case until only a few years ago.
At a time when telegraphic transfers, normally taking 4 to 5 days to arrive, was the only option, Western Union was the go-to place for fast payments.
While they may not be the only option for fast payments these days, they still have a strong position across the globe. Especially when you need to send emergency funds to a friend or family member that lost their credit card or passport in a foreign country.
How do Western Union payments work?
The payee can either go to a Western Union service point or transfer funds online. Western Union then issues a 10-digit Money Transfer Control Number (MTCN), that enables a person, for example in China, to collect the money a few hours later at another Western Union branch.
How long does it take for the receiver to receive the funds?
Western Union enables next day transactions, or instant transactions, which are made available to the receiver in a matter of hours. As such, the receiver can walk down to their nearest agent office as soon as you’ve sent the MTCN.
Is it safe to use Western Union when paying Chinese suppliers?
Once the receiver has collected the cash at an agent office, using the 10-digit Money Transfer Control Number (MTCN) and their ID, they cannot be traced. This is also why scammers like to use Western Union transactions to defraud importers looking to purchase products from China and other countries.
Western Union requires that the receiver presents their ID, together with the MTCN. That said, they don’t have the means to investigate fraud cases and track them down.
Once you’ve sent the MTCN, you won’t see your money again.
Keep in mind that Western Union only recommends that you send funds to someone you’ve met in person. Western Union is not, and never was, intended to be a platform for B2B payments.
Do most Chinese suppliers accept Western Union?
An actual manufacturer or legit trading company would never request a Western Union payment. They need to receive foreign currency funds to their bank account in order to claim the VAT rebate (17%) to their business bank account – not a Western Union cash payment.
Further, if they need a fast payment, there are other services for that – such as TransferMate or TransferWise.
There is never a legit reason why a supplier would need to receive a payment via Western Union.
Can I use Western Union to pay suppliers on Alibaba.com?
Alibaba.com, and its Trade Assurance system, only accepts payments to designated bank accounts via telegraphic transfer, payment by credit card or e-Checking.
That being said, some suppliers, or sales reps working for one, may still ask for a Western Union payment.
Even in the unlikely event that they do have a good reason for doing so, you should only use the official payment methods recommended by Alibaba.com.
For obvious reasons, Alibaba.com will not offer assistance in case you go against their advice.
What other payment options should I consider instead?
While no payment method is entirely safe, there are those that offer far better protection for importers. Below follows an overview:
a. Telegraphic transfer (T/T)
Telegraphic transfer (or wire transfer) payments can be managed online from your internet bank. Just make sure that you transfer the funds to a business bank account held by the same company as you’re buying the products from.
You should never transfer funds to a company bank account held by a different entity, or one held by an individual.
|Shenzhen Ruihong Watches Co., Ltd||Shenzhen Ruihong Watches Co., Ltd||Matching|
|Shenzhen Ruihong Watches Co., Ltd||Ruihong Watches (HK) Limited||Matching (Hong Kong Company)|
|Shenzhen Ruihong Watches Co., Ltd||Li Jun||Not matching (Personal account)|
|Shenzhen Ruihong Watches Co., Ltd||Anhui Fashion Trading Co., Ltd||Not matching (Different company)|
Keep in mind that there’s no way to request a refund when paying by telegraphic transfer. But, as demonstrated in the table above, there are ways to assess the risk level of the transaction by comparing the supplier name to the beneficiary.
Trust me when I say that’s it’s very rare that manufacturers in China engage in outright payment scams. Whenever that happens, there’s almost always a transaction to a personal bank account or unrelated company involved.
That said, it’s crucial that you don’t pay for everything upfront. Instead, you should only a 30% deposit before production, and wire the remaining 70% after the quality control and lab test is successfully completed.
While PayPal is rarely used when placing orders with suppliers, it’s a fast way to pay for product samples and courier fees. You can good chances of retrieving your funds if the company on the other end tries to scam you.
c. Letter of Credit (L/C)
An L/C enables importers to purchase goods without paying an upfront deposit. Instead, your bank automatically transfers the funds once the supplier has provided certain paperwork. This paperwork should always include the following:
- Approved quality inspection report
- Approved lab test report (if applicable)
- Bill of lading
Western Union could be a lifesaver if you lose your credit card on a business trip in Shenzhen. However, Western Union is not meant to be a payment platform for importers. The company itself is of course entirely legit and provides a valuable service for the purposes it’s made to serve.
Keep in mind that their own recommendation is to only send money to people you known and have met in person – not unverified online traders.