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Western Union Took My Money: Here’s How It Can Happen to You

I had always felt that Western Union was a reliable way to get help when the unexpected happens while traveling — now I know better.

puerto natales statueThe author on a sculpture along the boardwalk of Puerto Natales, Chile; (photo/Daniel Posada)
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Like so many people, my need for Western Union began with a stupid mistake. 

I arrived at the airport in Santiago, Chile, mid-February after an exhausting overnight flight from Medellin, Colombia. It was early in the morning, and perhaps because of my mental and physical fatigue, I left my debit card in the ATM. 

Thankfully, I at least remembered to cram the Chilean pesos into my wallet, so I wasn’t completely without money. But that was my last piece of plastic. I’d lost my other card a year earlier and couldn’t get a replacement from the U.S. (I’d been living and working remotely in South America for several years.)

At this point, I had only one option for getting money: international wire transfers. I had used Western Union many times in the past, both to send money to friends in need or to receive emergency cash from my parents or my girlfriend. 

So initially, I felt confident I’d be able to navigate the situation. I spent a few days in Santiago, spending as few precious pesos as possible. My next stop took me to Puerto Natales, where I planned to hike in Torres del Paine National Park. 

I already had a place to stay with an old friend who had permanently moved there just before the pandemic and opened a Tex-Mex restaurant called El Tejano Tacos. (It’s really good, by the way.) They helped me immensely, but I didn’t want to create an additional burden of sending them money remotely in exchange for cash, though that’s what eventually had to happen. 

Why? Because Western Union stole the money I was supposed to receive. 

Let me explain.

western union puerto natales
The Western Union office in Puerto Natales; (photo/Andrew McLemore)

The Money Request

My girlfriend sent me $500 via Western Union in Medellin to the tiny office in Puerto Natales at my request. This little building is mainly known to locals as Chilexpress, a courier service similar to UPS. But it also functions as a Western Union. All you need is the tracking number, right? 

My girlfriend sent me a photo of the Western Union receipt with the tracking number, which I could use along with my passport to verify my identity and pick up my money. If you’ve done this before, then you know the drill. 

But then things got weird. 

The first day after the money was sent, the two Chilean women working at the office told me the transaction was still pending — something I’d never experienced with Western Union. It’s always been available almost immediately. I returned the next day, when they told me the transaction was now ready, but they didn’t have cash on hand yet. I’d have to come back in the afternoon. 

A few hours later, I came back to finally — I hoped — pick up my money. But now there was a new problem. The transaction didn’t exist anymore, and the middle-aged Chilena working there refused to help me. (All of these interactions were in Spanish, by the way.)

I then called Western Union Chile, which told me their system showed I’d already been paid. After several hours on the phone with company representatives from the U.S. and Chile, they only advised me to return to the office. 

I did that the following day. But the same woman (now increasingly difficult) told me she could do nothing, and I’d have to take up the issue with Western Union Colombia. I asked how that would work when the system showed I had already been paid in Puerto Natales. She simply shrugged it off and waited for me to leave. 

new york city western union
A Western Union store in Manhattan; (photo/Shutterstock)

The Help Requests

Since I had a flight back to Colombia, I didn’t have more time to spend in a fruitless fight in a small town at the bottom of South America. And sure enough, my attempt to resolve the situation in Colombia went nowhere. As I feared, they said they couldn’t help me because the system showed I’d been paid.

So, who ended up with my $500? Western Union? The workers at the Puerto Natales office? I don’t know — I only know that I never received it. 

I spent hours on the phone with Western Union customer service, but it went nowhere. Everyone I spoke to at Western Union passed the responsibility on to another department, leading me in a never-ending circle between representatives in the U.S., Colombia, and Chile. 

Whether they know it or not, they stole my money, and somebody other than me gets to keep it. As a journalist still working in 2024, $500 is a big chunk of change for me, and it hurts to lose it, whether that’s the result of indifference or incompetence.

Moreover, I had to cancel the rest of my trip. I had planned on continuing on to Argentina, but without the ability to get help from friends — or Western Union — I decided that the smart thing was to end the trip and regroup before I got myself into a worse situation. 

puerto natales, chile
Tourists on the boardwalk of Puerto Natales, Chile; (photo/Andrew McLemore)

Once back home in the States, I tried again to ask for help, but customer service told me they couldn’t open an investigation. That had to happen directly through company representatives in Colombia (which, again, makes no sense when the problem happened with the pickup in Chile).

Fast-forward 2 weeks, and I call Western Union again. But now, I’m calling to get a comment for the story I’m writing — this story. I first tried the Media Relations extension, which doesn’t work.

So, I waded back through customer service until finally speaking with someone at Western Union’s corporate headquarters in Denver. This very pleasant person finally started an official investigation into what happened — after my explanation that I was a journalist publishing a story about not receiving the money from a wire transfer.

I have yet to receive an official response for this story, though I got an email apology: “We appreciate your business and are truly sorry for the experience you had while using our services.”

Alternatives to Western Union

I had always felt that Western Union was a reliable way to save someone’s ass when the unexpected happens while traveling. Now I know better. As is my style, I should have immediately relied on my friends’ help instead of trying to deal with my problems all alone. 

Since I still had my phone, I could transfer money electronically to my friends in Puerto Natales and get cash directly from them. Even if you don’t know someone in your travel destination, I can imagine making that work with a helpful hotel owner or perhaps another traveler.

Realistically, we have many choices today such as Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, and more. In the future, I’ll be trying one of those methods first.

A fisherman in Puerto Natales, Chile; (photo/Andrew McLemore)

Even without a phone, you could likely achieve the same solution by using a computer, like the front desk of your hotel or hostel. We now have alternatives to companies like Western Union, and I wish I had explored those options first. I wanted to remain independent and avoid asking for help. But that meant putting my money into the hands of an international company that seems apathetic (at best) about accountability. 

To be fair, I’ve used Western Union many times in the past to both send and receive money. But losing a decent chunk of cash without any ability to recover it isn’t an easy thing to forget.

So, I’ve learned my lesson: I’ll never use Western Union again.

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