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Wire Fraud

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

The crime of fraud can take many forms. Scams that take place over interstate wires, such as telemarketing fraud, phishing, or spam-related schemes, are all called wire fraud. Federal wire fraud is a federal offense and is typically investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but state laws and charges can also apply.

The definition of wire fraud is rather broad and includes any writings, signs, signals, pictures or sounds transmitted by wire, radio or television in interstate or foreign commerce. Federal prosecutors often charge persons with wire fraud in order to bring federal charges against them, typically when the crimes committed would only be subject to state laws.

Elements of Wire Fraud

Wire fraud is similar to regular fraud, except that it takes place over phone lines or involves electronic communications. The legal definition of wire fraud has four elements:

  • The defendant created or participated in a scheme to defraud another out of money or property;
  • The defendant did so with intent to defraud;
  • It was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant would use wire communications; and
  • The defendant did in fact use interstate wire communications.

For the purposes of wire fraud, "interstate wire communications" could mean telephone calls, faxes, internet communications, or even television transmissions.

Penalties for Wire Fraud

Persons who are found guilty of wire fraud under federal law face the following penalties:

  • Fines up to $250,000 for individuals
  • Fines up to $500,000 for organizations
  • Imprisonment of not more than 20 years

There are special circumstances and additional penalties of 30 years' imprisonment and a million dollar fine, if the wire fraud is related to a presidentially declared major disaster or if it involves a financial institution.

These penalties are per count, which means that each phone call or email or other electronic communication can be considered separate counts. For instance, if an individual makes three phone calls regarding the fraud, there may be three counts of wire fraud. Each count would potentially be subject to the maximum $250,000 fine and 20 years' imprisonment for a total of $750,000 in fines and 60 years in prison.

Typical Wire Fraud Schemes

People who commit wire fraud are frequently looking for your personal financial information in order to misuse your credit cards or transfer money from your bank account. One common example of wire fraud over the phone is telemarketing fraud.

Plenty of scammers have also used the internet to defraud people. "Phishing" is the practice by which a scammer will send out unsolicited email messages to mass numbers of people. The email will typically contain a somewhat convincing story and end with a request for the reader’s personal information.

The Nigerian Prince Scam

One of the most infamous examples of this kind of fraud is the story of the Nigerian prince. In that scam, the sender claims that he is a Nigerian prince who has been exiled, or experienced some other disaster. The sender says he has money in a Nigerian bank account, but needs to use the reader’s bank account as a place to deposit the money until a safer place can be found. The reader would then give her account information, and the scammer would use that information to access the reader’s money.

Some hustles and swindles are easy to spot, but others are not. Be wary of any email, text message, TV broadcast, or phone call requesting your personal information. You can report many instances of wire fraud to the Federal Trade Commission, which will launch an investigation. Also be on your guard against other fraud and financial crimes.

Charged with Wire Fraud? Get Legal Help

Wire fraud is usually linked to other crimes, and the wire fraud element is what allows federal authorities to prosecute the underlying crimes. If you've been charged with wire fraud or any other offense, it's a good idea to contact a criminal defense attorney near you to discuss your case. Only an expert lawyer can advise you about your specific situation and recommend your best course of action.

Next Steps

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