Victims of fraud who paid money to scammers via a Western Union wire transfer between 2004 and January this year can now apply for a refund – following a multimillion-dollar settlement in the US.

Money transfer firm Western Union has paid $586 million (£437 million) to the US government to reimburse victims of scams which involved a wire transfer using its services, after admitting it had failed to maintain an effective anti-money-laundering programme and had aided and abetted wire fraud.

The US Department of Justice has now confirmed that victims of fraud who live anywhere in the world – including the UK – can apply for a refund if they lost money transferred via Western Union between 1 January 2004 and 19 January 2017. As there's a limited refund pot and there are thought to be 100,000s of victims, you may not get a full refund, but you may well be able to get some money back.

For tips protecting yourself online, see our 30+ ways to stop scams. For tips on sending cash overseas cheaply and safely, see Sending Money Abroad.

What is wire transfer fraud?

Fraudsters use a variety of methods to trick people into wiring them money – examples can include posing as a relative in need of assistance, scams linked to online dating or fraudulent online purchases.

The US refund scheme covers any form of wire transfer fraud which involved making a payment via Western Union, so if you sent money to someone who wasn't who they said they were, or you didn't get what you were promised in return for a transfer you made, you can apply for a refund.

Some wire transfer scams can be very convincing, so never send money to somebody you don't know or trust. For more on how to protect yourself online and avoid being caught out by fraudsters, see 30+ Ways to Stop Scams.

Who can get a refund?

Anybody who was a victim of fraud which involved making a wire transfer payment through Western Union between 1 January 2004 and 19 January 2017 can apply.

The first indication that British citizens could be eligible for a refund came from trading standards officers in Halton, Cheshire, who contacted the US Federal Trade Commission for confirmation, and then earlier this month urged UK residents to claim.

The US Department of Justice has now also told that you can apply for a refund regardless of where in the world you live.

How do I apply for a refund?

You can apply online or by post – the deadline is 12 February 2018.

To apply online, fill in the Western Union remission claim form. You'll be asked for contact details, details of the payment you made to a fraudster, whether you've previously managed to recover some of your lost money and if so, how much. If you've already had some money back, you can only claim for the amount you haven't yet recouped.

Don't be put off when the form asks for a social security number – just say you don't have one and that you aren't a US citizen. The form doesn't ask for your bank details.

If you have receipts or other supporting documentation such as a police report, upload copies of these to support your claim – though if you don't have any documentation you can still apply.

Make sure you apply through the official site and DON'T apply for a refund elsewhere, as it's possible unofficial copycat sites could emerge. You DON'T have to pay to get your money back or use a claims firm, and you WON'T be called and asked for your bank account or credit card number as part of the claims process.

If you'd prefer to apply by post you can download the claims form and post it to:

United States vs the Western Union Company
PO Box 404028
Louisville, KY 40233-4028

When will I get my refund?

The process may take a year or more because of the number of claims that will have to be dealt with. The Department of Justice has already identified 500,000 potential victims in the US and many more could apply from overseas.

Assuming your claim is successfully verified, the amount you get back is likely to be a proportion of what you lost, after anything you've already had refunded has been discounted. That's because there's a set $586 million available for refunds, and the Department of Justice expects a large number of claimants – the money will be distributed proportionately.

Only the amount you transferred via Western Union is eligible for a refund, so any transaction fees you paid or other losses will not be refunded. You won't get any interest on what you lost, and you can't apply for compensation on top of a refund for what you paid out.

If you move home after you've made a claim, make sure to update Gilardi and Co LLC, the firm which is administering the refunds – otherwise you might not get anything.

My parents lost money in a transfer scam – can I claim for them?

In general, no – everyone must file their own claim. However, if you represent an estate or have Power of Attorney, you can claim but will need to provide documents proving it.

'Rare opportunity' for victims of wire transfer scams

Deana Perchard, trading standards manager at Halton Trading Standards, which first alerted us that UK fraud victims could claim, said: "Halton Trading Standards' specialist scams officers have worked with people who have lost thousands of pounds to scams, some of whom have used Western Union to pay the scammers. Whilst we advise people on how to avoid being caught out in the future, we often have to tell people that they won’t see any of their money again.

"Because of the action taken by the Federal Trade Commission in the USA, Western Union are being held responsible for the payments made to scammers so this is a unique opportunity for those who have been caught out by scams to get something back.

"The fund available is for victims worldwide but so far it appears only to have been heavily publicised in the US and Canada. Apply now and make sure that UK consumers benefit from this rare opportunity."

What should I do if I'm a victim of fraud?

You can report a fraud via Action Fraud's online tool, or by calling it on 0300 123 2040.

If you've wired money and are now concerned you may become a victim of fraud, speak to the company you used to make the transfer immediately as it should be able to stop the payment if it hasn't been processed already.

See 30+ Ways to Stop Scams for more tips on protecting yourself online.