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A while back, a friend of mine did a dumb: she gave her savings to some guy in return for a vague contract to invest it for high returns. This wasn't an Internet/email thing; she knew this guy in real life (before COVID-19). The guy led her to believe that he was registered financial advisor (though I didn't find anything to that effect in her contract or their message history). Then she had some bad luck: lost her job, wrecked her car, etc. So she wanted to dip into her savings. She contacted the guy, who agreed to start disbursements from her investments (which he claimed to have a value of several times the principal at that point; he gave an approximate dollar figure). He paid out a couple thousand, then started delaying, temporizing, and making excuses. After a while of this, she started asking for all of her funds to be returned. She continued regularly asking him for her money over the next number of months and this behaviour continued.

No doubt about it: my friend's trust in this guy was unwise. But that's not the point here. The point here is that buried in their message history, after several months of requests from her for money and excuses from him, he asked for another $2,000 to cover "fees" and expedite the process of returning her money. (She didn't pay.) From my viewpoint, this appears to jump from some sort of confidence fraud straight into 419 scam territory. Is this a felony?

Both parties here live in the US state of Washington.

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Fraud may be a crime, or a tort (civil wrong): only criminal fraud can be a "felony". The Washington criminal laws about fraud are here, and they are all fairly specific, such as selling or destroying encumbered property (which is a misdemeanor anyhow), or conducting a mock auction. Most frauds are misdemeanors, though forgeries are in the felony category. It also includes identity thefts, again the emphasis being on false documents. Based on your description, this is not a crime, it is a civil wrong, meaning that she will have to sue the guy to get her money back. The Attorney General's office will not get involved unless there is a widespread state interest (for example, very many Washington residents being victimized), and then the involvement would be suing on behalf of the victims.

That said, if the swindle was carried out by phone, then that is potentially a violation of a federal felony law, 18 USC 1343. It would not matter if the parties are in the same state, because phone service counts as "interstate commerce". So the details of phone involvement matter. Saying that you "have to" charge for processing a refund is not per se fraudulent and texting someone that "I'll have to charge an extra $2,000" doesn't make this wire fraud. But there is some potential for a federal wire fraud angle.

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  • Thanks. I knew that the breach-of-contract, etc. stuff was civil law; I just hoped that with the attention that advance-payment scams have received over the last decade or two, there was some law against them that this guy might have crossed. Oh well. – User1234 Feb 18 at 18:58
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    The reference to "message history" suggests that some sort of electronic communications were involved - do the federal wire fraud statutes come into play? – Nate Eldredge Feb 18 at 20:28
  • Both parties were in the same state, so I expect not as I understand federal wire fraud to require interstate or international communication. Unless via some torturous argument that Apple's servers are in another state? (I have no idea where Apple hosts their stuff.) – User1234 Feb 18 at 21:03

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