Our IT product retail shop provides scan and send service. As employees, we are not allowed to read or discuss things they scan. There is one client that comes to use this service on a regular basis. My colleagues and I noticed that she always scans Western Union money sendings; sometimes she also scans some kind of suspicious agreements.

One time we broke the rule - after she left, we opened the sent document and we are completely sure that she is being scammed. There was a huge watermark on document with text "original". The agreement was signed by some kind of institute that will provide X amount of money to this woman, but she needs to send Y amount of money to make it possible. Typical scammer text. When we googled that institute, we found nothing.

She has already sent about [average salary in our country].

Should we tell her that she's being scammed?

EDIT: She is not scanning the document herself. She gives it to us and we scan it. That's how we noticed the watermark and Western Union logo.

  • 210
    In my opinion the best way to handle this is to warn all your customers about these scams (she will not be the only one! These guys earn millions doing these scams). Create flyers for example and hand them out or just place it somewhere where everyone can read. This person can then decide if she is scammed or not. I suggest talking to a lawyer what you suppose to do lawfully in this case.
    – Jeroen
    Jul 3, 2017 at 9:58
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jane S
    Jul 5, 2017 at 9:55
  • I don't really understand this dilemma. You say she always scans Western Union money sendings, but you once broke the rule and opened the document? So how did you know what she has been scanning every other time? The only interpretation I can give is that you know it was a Western Union transfer every time (perhaps because she told you, or it was in the title), but you only saw the details once. If this is the case, why don't you straightforwardly tell her that you've noticed a lot of Western Union documents, which is unusual and usually a sign that the customer is being scammed?
    – user541686
    Jul 5, 2017 at 21:19
  • ...furthermore, if that's correct and she knows you know it's a WU transfer (without the details) you could politely ask "We really value you as a customer; however, we've read so many horror stories about people just like you losing all their money on WU money transfers that we're getting very worried about your situation. I genuinely don't want that to happen to you. Would you mind if we discuss it a bit?" and go from there. And if she says no, and you think you can base the potential concern solely on what you can legally know, then maybe it's time to decide whether to inform authorities.
    – user541686
    Jul 5, 2017 at 21:24
  • What I'd do is say to here that you were contacted by the authorities(FBI, NSA, or whatever) that a certain type of scam has been floating around(be kinda specific with certain details so she will be able to make the connection. This is similar to the flyer thing but more intense and you'll have to come up with a well polished story. You can say something like "They've tracked some of the documents we scanned to be associated with known scammers since all our documents are watermarked". Assuming she isn't computer savvy(since she is going to get her docs scanned rather than doing it had home) Jul 6, 2017 at 1:28

10 Answers 10


Now this in an interesting dilemma. Your legal and moral ethics are conflicting, and by that very nature, this becomes a complex issue. So, I would recommend doing the following.

Don't tell the woman you've opened any documents or anything- you can get in trouble for this, even if it's the right thing to do.

What you should do, however, as Jeroen suggested, is to put up signs and notices warning your customers about this specific sort of scamming, with information such as how to spot them and other things. Hopefully the woman should get the idea that she may be getting scammed.

Especially if this is an elderly woman, I would recommend physically handing her the flyers and such, so that she may figure it out "by herself".

Add advice in the flyer that if you cannot find the institute in question on the internet, that's a major red flag. Make this very clear on the flyer.

  • 5
    I think this is the best approach. Hint in a firm but not self-incriminating(for the reading customer documents part) way that there are all sorts of scam they should be aware of.
    – Leon
    Jul 3, 2017 at 11:02
  • 88
    Probably the best course... However, if she's already been taken in by a large amount, she may be very difficult to convince... It's simple human psychology - if you've already put a lot money into something, you don't want to admit to have being fooled. Jul 3, 2017 at 11:51
  • 33
    @BaardKopperud Also known as sunk cost fallacy.
    – Magisch
    Jul 3, 2017 at 12:01
  • 8
    @BaardKopperud fixing that goes outside the scope of a copy-shop employee either way. All you can do is warn about people about shooting themselves in the foot, after that it's their own responsibility.
    – Erik
    Jul 3, 2017 at 12:22
  • 52
    If the OP can see the WU logo without violating the law in the process (my understanding is that's how he became suspicious in the first place) he could also address this particular customer the next time she comes in with one of them. "Excuse me, ma'am, I noticed you've been sending a lot of Western Union scans lately, and that seems like a hallmark of this Nigerian Prince scam we've been seeing a lot of lately (indicate flyer/sign/whatever.) Do you mind if I ask, to whom are you sending all these WU payments and are you sure they're legitimate?" Then, if need be, help her Google it.
    – Steve-O
    Jul 3, 2017 at 23:23

A pragmatic approach mentioned in only one comment:

@markus, a more realistic solution here other than "you'll all go to jail for reading the document!". Could you very simply strike up a conversation with the nice old lady What about "I saw from the telephone number you're sending something to Nigeria, say I visited there once" With luck she'll just immediately start telling you the whole thing. Then you can all just chime in "OMG, you're being scammed, I just saw a story about that on TV" and then show her some scam articles. You know? Why not do that? – Fattie 5 hours ago

A nice old lady who falls for a Western Union "send us money" scam is overwhelmingly unlikely to prosecute you for having...what, exactly?

You noticed the content of the paper she handed to you.

Kinko's workers aren't robots. IANAL, but it would be absurd to expect someone not to notice ANYTHING about the paper they are copying. Granted, I could imagine situations where legal action against a Kinko's worker could make sense, but those would be in the realm of discrimination or fraud.

Example: discriminatory remarks made when someone hands you a promotional flier for a religious group to be copied. Example: taking note of confidential information such as an SSN from a document and then using that.

In neither of these cases would the litigation be for having just noticed what was on the paper. Instead, it would be for other forbidden activities that were prompted by what was on the paper.

This isn't legal advice; just common sense.

Advising the nice old lady that she may be being scammed would be a very nice thing to do. The only aspect remaining would be, how best to do so?

I would imagine a conversation something like so:

You: Excuse me, I couldn't help noticing that you are often making copies of Western Union money sendings?

Her: Yes?

You: Well, I don't know if you know this, but I just want to be sure you're warned that there are a lot of scams going on today that use Western Union as their way to get money from the people they're scamming.

See what she says to that. If she angrily tells you to mind your own business, fine, at least you tried. If, as is far more likely, she expresses some interest or "I didn't know that," you can say/ask:

Yes, it's very common. So it's important, before you send money to someone through Western Union, that you have done some research on the company or person you're sending money to. For example, do they have a website? Is the company a real company? If you look on the internet for "company name scam" or "company name legitimate," you can usually find people who've had the same question and share their experience.

You seem like a very nice lady and I'd hate for you to lose your money to a con artist. Perhaps you have a relative who could help you look into it.

My advice is, go for it.

(Aside: It's sad that we live in a world where people are afraid to help other people for fear of litigation against utterly well-intended actions. I, for one, don't want to live in such a world. I will help people regardless.)

  • I think this would be applicable if it was possible to determine from the outside, but OP clearly said after she left, we opened the sent document. I think this makes it more complicated since evidently it was clear they couldn't tell from the outside.
    – Tas
    Jul 3, 2017 at 21:34
  • 2
    @Tas, well, read the question again; they noticed the Western Union money sendings and "suspicious agreements" before opening the document. So there was ample evidence to prompt the conversation I'm recommending. Now, as they opened the document and are now completely sure she's being scammed, rather than just being suspicious/concerned (which is what prompted them to open the document in the first place!), you could make a case that they shouldn't be as gentle about it or as "soft sell" as I'm recommending. But I didn't make that case, so your criticism doesn't really seem to apply. :)
    – Wildcard
    Jul 3, 2017 at 21:38
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    IOW: They couldn't tell, as you say, but my recommended communication is just a general warning, rather than a definitive "You are being scammed for sure" statement.
    – Wildcard
    Jul 3, 2017 at 21:39
  • 24
    +1 for 2 reasons. First, it saved me from writing a very similar answer. Thank you. Second, I absolutely love the last two sentences of your answer. (in your Aside, in parenthesis). I do wish more people would be willing to join us in being willing to do such things. THANK YOU!
    – TOOGAM
    Jul 4, 2017 at 7:23

An excellent example on why it's important not to look at stuff.

  • Depending on the country,what you did may result in jailtime (e.g. Germany) - this could constitute a breach of "Fernmeldegeheimniss".
  • OTOH now that you even documented your knowledge here, you/your company may be knowingly supporting money laundering/fraud.
  • recommendation: remove your photo here.
  • don't make assumptions about who is being scammed (she or anybody else) - maybe she abuses your scan and send service to hide her ass, or she could be victim and perpetrator at the same time (like the typical "be our sales representative" scams).

You could ask your boss (in general, in a "who is actually responsible if our service is used as part of something illegal" way) to put up a note that customers take responsibility against the company for making sure that they do transmit money only to legitimate recipients, and put up some examples of scam/illegal behavior.

  • 5
    The problem is, once you know about crime, not reporting it might, depending on jurisdiction, make you punishable as cooperation in crime. 'Fernmeldegeheimnis' would be applied if the document would have to be 'opened', so AFAIR only if this is self-scan service (the employee doesn't see what is being scanned).
    – user50700
    Jul 3, 2017 at 12:18
  • 5
    Why do you think knowing specifics of German law including a German legal term will be useful to an OP who probably isn't in Germany?
    – jwg
    Jul 3, 2017 at 13:08
  • 5
    @jwg In other countries there are probably similar laws.
    – glglgl
    Jul 3, 2017 at 15:04
  • 11
    @glglgl Yes, similar or different.
    – jwg
    Jul 3, 2017 at 15:33
  • 3
    Nobody ever went to jail for reading a sheet of paper that wasn't meant for their eyes; at least not according to Fernmeldegeheimnis.
    – henning
    Jul 4, 2017 at 12:49

It is really not a workspace question, but a legal question, so you should consult a lawyer. You already are in, you can't (probably) pretend nothing has happened.

First thing, have you broken the secret of correspondence, or something similar? If this is a self-service, so the customer use your scan machine and never handle the document to your employee, probably it is (could be). If the employee scans the document, then it is not rational to expect privacy, so (once again probably) no breach of privacy was done. How it is possible to expect employer to scan document without looking on it?

Second, you know about possible crime. Most (all) legal systems require you to report at least some categories of crime you know about, otherwise you'd be classified as a complotter. Murder, treason, money falsification is almost anywhere on the list, scam might be, might be not. But in case it is, better to be safe then sorry.

You have already publicly admitted you know about potential crime. Consult someone expert on you countrie's criminal code for you own sake.

  • 1
    Some of clients scan themselves, some ask for help. In this case, scanning was always performed by employee, that is the reason why it got our attention
    – Markus
    Jul 3, 2017 at 12:32
  • 1
    Most businesses will have a lawyer on retainer just for this kind of situation. In many jurisdictions, a lawyer can report something like this and keep you behind the shield of client privilege. They will know how to craft the report so it is properly received.
    – pojo-guy
    Jul 3, 2017 at 13:48
  • 9
    @markus, you are making way too much of this. It seems to me you ACCIDENTALLY saw this illegal transaction. Of course in performing the technical act of scanning documents you look at them extensively, and you (obviously) saw the illegal activity. Why oh why don't you report it to your superiors in those terms? I think above you may have used a sentence like you "accidentally looked at it", I think you are just confused, and misspoke after all English is not your first language even. It is quite clear that you (of course, obviously!) see the documents while processing.
    – Fattie
    Jul 3, 2017 at 14:09
  • 2
    @Fattie thanks for your answer. My question was: "Should we tell her that she's being scammed?" I think it is logical question in my situation. Because, as I said, I don't have rights to discuss what clients scan. I was not expecting this discussion to grow so big.
    – Markus
    Jul 3, 2017 at 14:21
  • 7
    @Markus Fattie understands exactly what actually happened. The suggestion is when/if this is discussed you should be very careful in the phrasing of the explanation of how you came to see the contents of the document so as to not incriminate yourself.
    – Mr.Mindor
    Jul 3, 2017 at 19:00

Call an anonymous police tips line.

I don't know where you are, but in my country there is a completely anonymous phone number (free) which you can ring to report criminal matters or tips.

I would suggest (strongly) that you check if that's possible where you are and ring them if you can.

It may take some time to work out the right phrasing or what you're prepared to say, but it's simply a matter of doing something : you have every reason to think someone is being scammed out of a great deal of money (the equivalent of perhaps a years salary !) and you should do what you can to help stop this, IMO.

Your should give them, at least, enough information to identify the woman who is being scammed. This needs to be stopped.

If necessary report the matter openly.

While it may seem a lot to maybe get fired or at least disciplined for doing this, it's a question for your own sense of morality whether you think you have a duty to report this to the authorities (and the lady) rather than cover yourself.

There's an old saying for this situation : No good deed goes unpunished.

I'm afraid you may have to view this as a risk you're going to have to take.

  • What does it even mean that a phone number is anonymous? I would not for one second believe, for example, that if you did something illegal and that phone call was involved, they won't be able to track you down because it was "anonymous". The only way to ensure anonymity is to find an anonymous phone and make sure your voice doesn't give you away (I have no idea how)... if you can payphones these days anymore...
    – user541686
    Jul 5, 2017 at 21:30
  • @Mehrdad The police have better things to do that track down people who commit minor offenses (if the OP's actions were even that, which I doubt). They're going to worry about the major crime and stopping it. As a matter of law in my country I think (IANAL) it would simply generate inadmissible evidence if the police tried to trace a tip on a public line they'd publicized as anonymous. It's entire purpose is to allow people who fear contacting the police to do so without consequences so they hear about bad crimes that often go unreported otherwise. Less paranoia please. Jul 5, 2017 at 21:47
  • Oh, I would love to be less paranoid, but it's kind of hard when it goes against my sense and it's just based on a random person's online speculation. Would you have any data that would be more convincing? Like maybe statistics of what fraction of criminals calling anonymous tip lines about worse crimes end up themselves getting into hot water or something? P.S. I'm not even sure this is even a crime on the customer's end. She's most likely unaware of what's going on. So it's a likely criminal reporting a likely non-crime "anonymously". How safe can he be?
    – user541686
    Jul 5, 2017 at 22:31
  • It sounds more like the OP breached a customer confidentiality rule and is reporting evidence of a major crime (the scam being perpetrated on the customer by someone else). I have no idea why you think the scam is a "non crime". And, BTW, your own views as just as "random" as mine based on your own criteria. And my posts second point was that, regardless of consequences, the OP should do "the right thing", not "what's right for themselves" - that's the whole point about morality. Jul 5, 2017 at 22:54
  • 2
    @Caterpillaraoz Older people (as the OP described the victim) are particularly vulnerable to this type of scam. One day you may realize that they need protection and you mat find yourself on the other side of this, complaining that people knew you were being ripped off, but did nothing about it. A younger person can e.g. get a new job, an older person looses significant savings and they're gone for good. And the criminal will never be caught and stopped from hurting other victims unless people act with a sense of responsibility to others, nit just themselves. Jul 6, 2017 at 9:54

You did a very illegal thing by reading her documents

even if it was done with the best intentions such action would be probably ground for instant termination. So you probably should not tell anyone, just to a lawyer if your country has laws about "professional secrets" (very likely so) and for any reason you`ll feel like getting professional advices about this.

How you can help the person(s) being scammed

the only course of action that will not put you under bad light would be (if you have the authority to) put informative panels about this scams and similar ones for customers to read. If you do not have such authority you may, depending on how your organization works, suggest this to your supervisor, without mentioning what you did if you care about keeping you job and not getting sued.

Do not talk directly to her

a person being scammed is usually very convinced about what is doing so do not expect any positive reaction if you decide to tell her. Even more so, your conversation would probably include something along the lines "hey I just illegally checked your mail". Do not.

  • 4
    legality depends on the country the poster is from, which isn't specified. Will also depend on the contract/terms and conditions the scan and send customers agree to. However even if legal your employment terms and conditions may not allow it
    – mattumotu
    Jul 4, 2017 at 13:50
  • 11
    -1 for calling this "very illegal" without citing any particular statute or even knowing what jurisdiction the OP is located in. All we know for a fact is that this is against company policy, which is a very different thing from being illegal. I tend to doubt that there would be a law on the books preventing the OP from reading a document that someone hands to him. There may be laws preventing the OP from disseminating information gained in that fashion if it's sensitive/"commercial in confidence"/etc., but even that's often left up to private contract in many jurisdictions.
    – aroth
    Jul 5, 2017 at 1:26

Many good points that I don't need to repeat, but let me say:

  1. I have a hard time believing that it is breaking the law for someone to notice what is written on a piece of paper that he is required, as part of his job, to feed into a scanner. At the very least you have to look at the paper to put it in right side up. Given that you have to look at the piece of paper, it's impossible to say what specific words might catch your eye. A law that says that you are not allowed to open a sealed envelope is reasonable and enforceable. A law that says that you are required to look at a piece of paper but you are not allowed to register in your mind what it says is just absurd.

I don't know what country you're in, but US laws routinely talk about places and situations where you have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" and places where you don't. You can sue people for tapping your phone line. You can't sue people for overhearing something you say in a crowded public place.

The company may well say that they don't want employees reading the documents. I'd guess the purpose of such a rule is that they don't want their employees spending time on the job reading other people's mail. If they really think this is protecting customers' privacy, they're just nuts.

  1. People who have fallen for scams often seem to get totally committed to the scam. Not wanting to admit they did something foolish, I suppose. I've had a couple of times when I've tried to warn a friend that I thought he was falling for a scam, and I think 100% of the time the friend's response has been "that's absolutely ridiculous and how dare you try to tell me what to do".
  • 1
    I think the second most common response is "ok, but this isn't a scam, it's legit", due to the sunk cost fallacy. Jul 4, 2017 at 17:30


This is an interesting moral dilemma, but it's not yours. It belongs to your firm's legal team, who must do what is correct for your firm, based on statute and a wide variety of case law. In some cases there is a legal duty to act, yes.

Morally, though, my opinion is...

You are supposed to be the experts here

I get "don't snoop into content", OK. You certainly are allowed to look at other parts of the message, such as the recipient and other data, because you need to work with that data to do the contracted job.

Is there anything about that data which you are allowed to look at which would be a yellow-flag or red-flag for scams? Based on your experience, which you are definitely allowed to have, and is a value-add.

If so, it could be argued that you have a duty to warn them.

You are thinking like you would be in trouble if you snooped. But why did you snoop? Because of the weird destination gave you reasonable suspicion. You are expected to look out for stuff and if you see something, say something. The greater risk here is 6 months later, the customer coming back at you with "why didn't you warn me?" and a lawyer in tow looking for your firm to make good her losses. This posting will be Exhibit A.

I would not send the work she just gave you, since that would be knowingly acting in furtherance of a crime. I would call the cops, and work with them to have a word with her, with an eye toward protecting her from a likely scam. If she insists, I would tell her to take her business elsewhere.

Really, your firm/chain's legal team should have good policy in place for what to do about situations like this, and I'm surprised it hasn't been drummed into you. You certainly want them in the loop ASAP.

  • "Why didn't you warn me?" ...is this something people get sued for (and lose)? Is it a crime or a civil thing? Do you have a legal duty to warn anyone of any danger they might be in?
    – user541686
    Jul 5, 2017 at 21:32
  • That's a very good point, this may not be an existential musing, there may be a genuine smoking-gun duty to act. In any case, being sued is such a nuisance that it's almost as bad as losing. Jul 6, 2017 at 1:11

So, where you live, if someone comes in and asks you to make scans of paedophilic images, would you get in trouble for reporting them?

The answer - in every country in the EU at least, and every state in the US - is no, you'd be fine. In fact, you could get in far more trouble for NOT reporting criminal activity you were aware of, especially when that crime could be in the serious, decades-in-jail level, of money laundering and organized crime.

A crime is being committed, against one of your clients. You need to inform your management, who will know the correct procedure.

Your company will already have ass-coverage legalese in its user agreement covering your viewing of their files in order to perform your duties, whether it's "for fulfillment of administration and maintenance tasks" or some other boilerplate. If your company doesn't have this, then they really need new lawyers.

What your company almost certainly does not have is ass-coverage for failing to report a crime.


The lady is possibly laundering money.

Now, organized crime is not to be taken too lightly...and I have no idea what happens to you when someone finds out that you accidentally found out about possibly criminal behavior and did not tell the police.

Explanation of one possible way such things can work:

Person A sells stuff on ebay. Person A also sens emails with topics like "make $$$ fast".

Person B answers such an email and now has a job of receiving money onto her bank account and forwarding like 90% or 95% of that money via an untraceable transfer (like "Western Union") to person A (whose real identity is unknown to B).

Now person C buys from person A. Person received payment details with the account from person B. Got it?

A few weeks later person C complains that he didn't receive the good he paid for...then contact the police. The police will trace the money to person B. Person B gets sacked for money laundering and general dumbness.

Person A has by now abandoned all contacts to person B. The records of the Western Union money transfers have been deleted 24 hours after they have been completed.

  • 3
    This doesn't really answer the question at hand, would you at least like to explain what they should do and not what the lady could be doing? The question was: Should we tell a client about a possible scam pertaining to a document we weren't supposed to read?
    – Draken
    Jul 4, 2017 at 13:42
  • You may be jumping to conclusions here
    – user8036
    Jul 4, 2017 at 14:32
  • AML/CFT record keeping legislation which Money Transfers like Western Union operate under require them to keep records of all transactions. They do NOT get deleted.
    – Kilisi
    Jul 5, 2017 at 8:47

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