The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has sued Walmart for allegedly allowing its money transfer services to be used by fraudsters who fleeced consumers out of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Walmart said it will “defend against this lawsuit aggressively.”
In its lawsuit, the FTC alleges that for years the Bentonville, Ark. company “turned a blind eye” while scammers took advantage of its failure to properly secure the money transfer services offered at Walmart stores. The company did not properly train its employees, failed to warn customers and used procedures that allowed fraudsters to cash out at its stores, according to the FTC’s complaint.
The FTC is asking the court to order Walmart to return money to consumers and to impose civil penalties for Walmart’s violations.
“While scammers used its money transfer services to make off with cash, Walmart looked the other way and pocketed millions in fees,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Consumers have lost hundreds of millions and the Commission is holding Walmart accountable for letting fraudsters fleece its customers.”
In addition to its retail business, Walmart offers financial services to consumers in its stores, including money transfers, credit cards, reloadable debit cards, check cashing and bill payments. Walmart acts as an agent for multiple money transfer services, including MoneyGram, Ria and Western Union, offering some services under its own brand, like “Walmart2Walmart” and “Walmart2World.” According to the complaint, tens of millions of money transfers are sent or received at Walmart stores each year, where they are processed by Walmart employees.
Money transfers are services that people use to send money to a recipient in another location. They are frequently used by criminals across a wide variety of scams because they are nearly impossible to retrieve after the money has been picked up. The FTC has brought multiple cases against money transfer services in recent years, including against MoneyGram and Western Union, alleging they failed to protect consumers who used their services.
Walmart’s practice of looking the other way to fraud had grave consequences for consumers, according to the complaint. It cites numerous instances in which law enforcement investigations found that scammers relied on Walmart money transfers as a primary way to receive payments, including in telemarketing schemes like IRS impersonation schemes, relative-in-need “grandparent” scams and sweepstakes scams.
Based on information from fraud databases maintained by MoneyGram, Western Union and Ria, from 2013 to 2018 more than $197 million in payments that were the subject of fraud complaints were sent or received at Walmart, with more than $1.3 billion in related payments also possibly connected to the fraud.
The FTC’s investigation of Walmart’s money transfer practices showed, according to the complaint, that Walmart knew about the role money transfer services play in scams and frauds. Despite that, the company’s money transfer services harmed consumers in numerous ways.
According to the complaint, for years it was Walmart’s stated policy for its employees to issue payouts even in the case of a suspicious money transfer, making it easy for scammers to retrieve fraud proceeds at a Walmart location. The complaint cites a Walmart reference guide for employees that stated, “If you suspect fraud, complete the transaction.” Walmart did not begin training employees to deny fraudulent payouts until at least May 2017, but even then, it provided this training only to employees at a limited number of locations, the FTC said.
The complaint charged that despite offering money transfer services for many years, Walmart did not have a written anti-fraud or consumer protection program until November 2014. After that time, the complaint cites numerous instances in which Walmart failed to have an effective program or violated its own policies, as well as the policies of its partners, like MoneyGram, that were ostensibly in place to protect consumers from fraud.
The complaint notes that Walmart, unlike most other outlets where money transfers can be received, pays even large payments in cash. In addition, the complaint notes that scammers were often able to retrieve their payments from Walmart by using fake IDs. This made it an attractive option for fraudsters looking to conceal their identities.
According to the complaint, Walmart failed to display or provide required materials to consumers at many of its locations that could have warned them about potential frauds and stopped them from sending money to scammers. More recently, the company stopped using a paper “send form” that included important information for consumers to help them realize they may be making a bogus payment, replacing it with a printout that contains only small print warnings.
The complaint alleges that Walmart’s training materials for the tens of thousands of employees who worked with money transfers was often contradictory or unclear. In many cases, employees who were authorized to handle money transfers as “backups” received no anti-fraud training at all or only limited training related to transfers. The complaint notes that in some instances Walmart staff were complacent or complicit in scams, accepting cash tips from scammers in exchange for processing fraudulent payments or being directly involved in the scams themselves.
The FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule has since 2016 prohibited money transfers from being used to pay for telemarketing purchases because of the high risk of fraud. But the complaint alleges that, for years, Walmart failed to take steps to comply with that provision.
The FTC vote to file the civil penalty complaint was 3-2. The FTC filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
For its part, Walmart said, “A narrowly divided Federal Trade Commission has filed a misguided lawsuit against Walmart regarding money transfer services that the company offers to consumers.
The company said since it began offering customers flat, low fee money transfer services at its stores, the company has saved consumers “particularly the unbanked and underbanked, an estimated $6 billion in fees by bringing important competition to the money transfer industry.”
Walmart said it has a robust anti-fraud program to help stop third-party criminals who try to use money transfer services to commit fraud and “only a minuscule number of transactions are even alleged to be fraudulent.”
“Despite Walmart’s anti-fraud programs, the FTC is trying to blame the company for actions by third parties, including fraud the FTC has already acknowledged was caused by another company, while that company was under federal government oversight through a compliance monitor, and during a period when that company’s own fraud prevention system had failed,” it added.
The retailer added that “pro-consumer competition in the money transfer industry is too important to be threatened by the unfortunate decisions of a few commissioners of the FTC” and that it “remains focused on fighting fraud.”