Are You Unknowingly Helping A Criminal Launder Money?

January 18, 2022

By a Biometrica staffer

An overwhelming majority (over 90%) of all money mule transactions identified through the European Money Mule Actions are linked to cybercrime, the Europol says. What does that mean? It means a large number of law-abiding citizens in the region could have easily become money mules and laundered cash for criminal enterprises or groups without realizing it. How? Per the Europol, that’s because the illegal money often comes from criminal activities like phishing, malware attacks, online auction fraud, e-commerce fraud, business e-mail compromise (BEC) and CEO fraud, romance scams, holiday fraud (booking fraud) and many others.

In a previous piece, we examined the basics of money muling: what it is, a glimpse of the ways in which criminals wield it, and the different kinds of money mules. Now, we’re going to look at some known methods that criminals use to lure common people into their scams; and tell you what signs to watch out for and how to protect yourself from becoming a money mule.

While criminals tend to constantly evolve their modi operandi as times change, there are a few commonly used methods that they follow, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Europol. Here’s what both agencies say on this subject:

Fake Job Offers

  • These scams typically contain language that tells you that you can earn a lot of money by “just sitting at home!” (Not to be confused with the world’s current reliance on remote working due to the Covid-19 pandemic). It could be in the form of an unsolicited email, or social media message, or a website advertisement etc that promises easy money for little or no effort.
  • The “employer” you communicate with uses web-based, informal email services (such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Outlook, etc.) that does not seem to match the name of the company. But, money mule adverts can also copy a genuine company’s website and have a similar web address in order to make the scam seem authentic. 
  • You are asked to open a bank account in your own name or in the name of a company you form to receive and transfer money.
  • As an employee, you are asked to receive funds in your bank account and then “process” or “transfer” funds via: wire transfer, ACH, mail, or money service business (such as Western Union or MoneyGram). The nature of the work of the fake company can vary, but the specifics of the job being advertised always include using your bank account to move money.
  • You are allowed to keep a portion of the money you transfer.
  • The position does not list educational or experience requirements. Your duties have no specific job description. Money mule adverts normally state that they are an overseas company seeking ‘local/national representatives’ or ‘agents’ to act on their behalf for a period of time, sometimes to avoid high transaction fees or local taxes. 
  • Your online companion, whom you have never met in person, asks you to receive money and, subsequently, forward the funds to an individual you do not know.

Dating, Social Media & Instant Cash

  • An online contact or companion you’ve only interacted with on social media or on dating platforms and never met in person, asks you to receive money and then forward these funds to one or more individuals you do not know.
  • When it comes to instant cash, it could be someone you do not know who asks you to move their money through your bank account and offers you a cut. Here contact can be established in person, through social media networks or instant messaging apps.
  • The opportunity to make easy money is presented as having no risks, using expressions such as ‘legit money’, ‘100% guaranteed’ and ‘same day cash.’ You are told what to do and how much others have already earned for doing the same.
Video Source: FBI’s YouTube account

Protecting Yourself From These Scams

What can you do to add a layer of protection to your online activities and safeguard yourself from unwittingly laundering money for criminals? Here’s what Europol and FBI say:

  • Never give your bank account or any other personal details to anyone unless you know and trust them. 
  • Secure your bank cards. Do not disclose your online banking login details, PIN, CVV number, etc. Never give your financial details to someone you don’t know and trust, especially if you met them online.
  • Be very cautious of unsolicited emails or offers made over social media or in person, promising easy money. Perform online searches to check the information from any solicitation emails and contacts.
  • Ignore any job offer involving money transfers through your bank account, regardless of how authentic they may seem. If an opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A legitimate company will not ask you to use your own bank account to transfer their money. Do not accept any job offers that ask you to do this.
  • Be wary when an employer asks you to form a company in order to open up a new bank account.
  • Be suspicious when the individual you met on a dating website wants to use your bank account for receiving and forwarding money.
  • Ask the employer, “Can you send a copy of the license/permit to conduct business in my county or state?”

Finally, what can you do if you think you’ve already become a victim of such a scam?

  • If you have received solicitations of this type, do not respond to them and do not click on any links they contain. Inform your local police or the FBI.
  • If you believe that you are participating in a money mule scheme, stop transferring money immediately and notify your bank, the service you used to conduct the transaction, and law enforcement.