Don’t be an…um…Mule

Mr. Smith nervously stood beside Baggage Carousel 6, looking for his luggage case on the conveyor belt.  He heard people next to him speaking in Spanish and Italian, both of which he spoke fluently in—a requirement for his job overseas.  He adjusted his carry-on bag suspiciously and watched, out of corner of his eye, several Milano Malpensa security officers walking down the long corridor of baggage carousels.  Mr. Smith pulled out his HTC phone and pretended to read an email that had arrived.  He turned his entire body away, keeping the carry-on bag from their gaze.   He couldn’t risk being found now with all the stolen money he had been asked to smuggle into Italy.  The drop-box located on the outskirts of Bergamo was so close he could almost smell it…

The previous paragraph illustrates a Hollywood-inspired encounter with a “money mule”.  With modern technology, however, the scam money transferring has evolved somewhat over the years.  It can often be conducted entirely within an individual’s hometown now.  The goal remains the same though—getting stolen money from its origins to its destination using a middleman so that the original perpetrator remains safely obscured.

What is a money mule?  A money mule is someone who (often without fully realizing) transfers stolen money physically or electronically for a criminal or organization.  Cybercrooks use mules to obtain funds from hacked bank accounts.  Sometimes they use mules to launder dirty money as well.  Frighteningly, most mules are commonly hired through slick ads and email distributed work-at-home scams which pose as legitimate employment for a processing or customer service company (complete with online training courses and a staffed HR department).  For every $100,000 stolen, there are about 12-15 mules utilized in the scheme in order to limit the chances of fraud detection.

How does the scam work?  One typical way is to have a mule provide their recruiter with banking details.  The recruiter will send a fraudulent transfer to that account and have the mule cash out the money transferred.  The mule is allowed to keep a percentage of the amount withdrawn while the remainder is wired to others involved in the scheme.  There are variations of this of course, including the usage of prepaid debit card accounts (which doesn’t involve the mule offering their own banking information).

Who is affected?  The scam affects numerous people.  It affects those whose money was originally stolen.  It affects the banks which had been defrauded and their customers.  It also affects the mule themselves .  The mule is sometimes held responsible for returning the money that was already wired.  A mule’s bank account will most likely be frozen and your credit reputation will be destroyed.

These mules are often recruited because they are out of work or in need extra money desperately.  This desperation often allows the mule to be fooled by the scam that would normally seem “too good to be true”.  For this reason, it is important that we remain always cautious .  Check the credentials of potential employers.  Never trust unsolicited emails you receive, especially those offering an at-home job involving financial processing.  Never accept payment that requires you to transfer money by wire transfer later on.

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