Overseas crime rings perpetrate many of the scams that victimize millions of Americans annually. They increase the chances their scams will be successful and that they’ll be able to collect the proceeds by using U.S.-based financial systems. “Money mules” help them do that.
A money mule is a person who transfers illegally obtained money or goods on behalf of a scammer who doesn’t want to get caught receiving them directly. An FBI Special Agent said, “Money mules are needed to help move stolen money from country to country, avert the scrutiny of financial institutions, and mask the identity of the individuals involved in these largely Internet-enabled crimes.”
The FBI Memphis Field Office, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Secret Service Nashville Field Office issued a joint alert in November 2020 warning that money mule schemes are increasing. In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had taken action against 2,300 money mules in its third annual Money Mule Initiative.
The FBI says that anyone can be recruited to be a money mule, but that the elderly, college-aged students, and recent immigrants are targeted. They fall into three categories:
Unwitting mules don’t know they’re participating in a criminal scheme. They’re often recruited by scammers, posing as a prospective employer or new romantic partner they met online, to receive funds or goods and send them on to the crooks. One study found that 20-30 percent of romance fraud victims are turned into money mules.
Witting mules ignore warning signs that they’re involved in criminal activity. They often begin as unwitting mules.
Complicit mules know they’re acting illegally and may even advertise their services and recruit others.
The FBI describes one woman working in early childhood education who met a man on an online dating site. He claimed to work for a children’s charity and, after they established a romantic relationship, asked if she would allow donations to be deposited to her bank account. He then had her wire the money to other bank accounts or buy cashier’s checks and mail them to other people. The FBI alert doesn’t say where the money came from specifically, but clearly he was using her to launder ill-gotten gains.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Mississippi indicted 20 Nigerians who recruited victims with a “work-at-home opportunity” that involved receiving electronic items such as cell phones and computers and repackaging and mailing them elsewhere. The goods had been purchased using stolen credit cards.
Regardless of whether they participate in such schemes knowingly or unknowingly, money mules are committing a crime and could face serious consequences. They’re also putting themselves at risk for identity theft, personal liability, and the inability to open bank accounts in the future. They and their families may be threatened with physical violence if they try to get out of the scheme.
The FBI and BBB offer these tips to keep from becoming a money mule:
Don’t accept a job offer that requires you to use your own bank account to transfer money or involves receiving and reshipping packages.
Be suspicious when someone you met on a dating website wants to use your bank account to transfer money.
Be wary when communications are poorly written with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.
Randy Hutchinson is the president of the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South. Reach the BBB at 800-222-8754.
This article originally appeared on Jackson Sun: Money mules fuel fraud