Money Mule Scams
A money mule is someone who is used by someone else as a means for laundering and transferring money that has been illegally acquired. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), scammers scam other people to move stolen money for them (and more), and it is called a money mule scam. Having a better understanding of money mule scams can help you avoid falling into such a scheme and can help to slow the steady tide of scamming across our nation, which is thought to have experienced an uptick in relation to the pandemic.
Luring People In
Scammers are generally good at what they do, and that is manipulating other people into doing their bidding. While scammers can come at you from any number of directions, money mule scams are often implemented via the following venues:
Work-at-home jobs (which correlates closely with the lockdowns and work-from-home situations we have all been living through)
Unexpected prizes and sweepstakes winnings
Social media platforms
The scams often begin with the person on the other side of the scam concocting a reason for sending you a check that you are meant to deposit in your account and to send off some of it (or all of it) to whomever you are instructed to send it to. While it may strike you as harmless at the time – and while some of the money may remain yours to keep – the fact of the matter is that there never was going to be a job, or a prize, or a date, or a new friend, and the money involved is stolen (and your contributions served to help launder it). Scammers go to great lengths to create elaborate ruses to lure people like you into their plans, which generally involve moving money that was scammed to begin with through the bank accounts of other scam victims.
How Money Mule Scams Work
Money mule scams work something like this:
The scammer will attempt to lure you in via a trumped-up conversation on a dating app, through a bogus job opportunity, or fraudulent sweepstakes win.
He or she will continue to weave his or her narrative web, and in the process, he or she will ask if he or she can send you a check (that you are directed to deposit in your account).
From here, the scammer will – somehow very reasonably – request that you send most of the money (or all of the money) on to someone else (typically by wiring it to him or her or by sending gift cards).
The money in question is, in fact, stolen (or the check is a fake, to begin with), and you have just become a money mule.
While the check may clear with your bank, once its true nature is discovered, you could be on the hook for the entire amount.
While all of this sounds a bit outrageous when you take it as a whole, scammers are good at taking things step by step (and, ultimately, you may not have any idea what hit you). The clincher is that even if you unwittingly help a scammer move his or her ill-gotten gains, you can still face legal repercussions.
On the Prowl for Money Mules
Scammers tend to use online venues to recruit their money mules because they tend to move their stolen or fake money electronically and through the mail. In fact, when it comes to online marks, there are nearly unlimited resources for scammers on the hunt. Some of the most common pools of unwitting money mules include:
Students who are looking to make pocket money online
Seniors and recent retirees who may not be technologically savvy
Those who are looking to meet new people on dating and friend apps
Small business owners who may be searching for new revenue sources
What Is Phishing
Phishing is often a step in the money mule recruitment process, and it is a criminal act that weaponizes disguised emails, voice messages, social media messages, or texts against their unsuspecting (and sometimes vulnerable) recipients. These phishing schemes are a regular thing that has not lost steam over the years (even as authorities have become better able to identify them). The gist of these phishing schemes is to scam personal information, such as bank account numbers, credit card numbers, social security numbers, and passwords out of their unsuspecting recipients, but they can also be used to instigate money mule scams.
Avoiding Money Mule Scams
We have all gone a bit stir crazy during the pandemic, and some of us may be more inclined to click on links and to engage in somewhat questionable online activity that we normally would not. Further, there has been an immense upsurge in online jobs, which gives the scammers plenty of room to spread out and make themselves comfortable. To help us all better understand how to avoid being the unwitting victim of a money mule scam, the FTC shares the following tips:
Do Not Accept a Job that Asks You to Transfer Money
To begin, the scammer may not be as blatant as asking you to transfer money right from the start. In fact, his or her requests might sound very reasonable, to begin with. You are beginning a new online job (or you believe you are), and it is not implausible that you will need special equipment to do the job. From here, it is not a huge leap to imagine your employer sending you a check that you are supposed to use to purchase the tools – from their supplier – that you need to perform your new online job. The pandemic has changed our work experience so dramatically that this setup may not seem as outrageous as it might have just a year or two ago. In other words, scammers adapt to their environment.
Do Not Pay for a Prize
If you win a prize, it is not something that you should pay anything for. No legitimate prize comes with a price tag attached. If you are asked to send money in order to collect your prize, give the whole deal a hard pass. At best, you would be out some money, but if the scammers follow through with an elaborate plan that involves them sending you money, you could end up in the role of a money mule.
Do Not Send Money to Someone You Meet Online
Many people meet online and go on to develop deep, lasting friendships and romantic relationships, but online dating is also a great space for scamming. If you have struck up a conversation with someone online whom you have never met before, do not engage in any type of interaction in which you exchange money – even if he or she sends you money first. This is a classic mechanism for luring people into the money mule role.
The Thing about Scammers
Scammers are generally excellent storytellers, and they have elaborate reasons why you should do X, Y, or Z, and you are almost certain to be overwhelmed in the process. In fact, many victims of scammers say that, ultimately, the scammers simply wore them down. If it sounds like someone is selling you a bill of goods, trust your gut. Additionally, there is no legitimate reason to accept money and to send it on, and if you keep this in mind, it can make shutting down a scammer (earlier in the process) easier to do. The most important point to remember is that the stolen money involved was very likely stolen from innocent victims who were duped in another scam, and you do not want to play a role in this process.
If You Spot a Scam
If you suddenly realize that you are smack dab in the middle of a scam, there are some steps you can take to help nip the matter in the bud, including:
Break off all contact with those you suspect of scamming and stop moving money for them
Tell your bank immediately (and do not forget to also notify the wire transfer and/or gift card company – as applicable)
Report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint
The bottom line is that criminals are adept at conning innocent people into doing their dirty work, and even if you did not realize what you were doing, you stand to lose money and could be in trouble with the law.
Types of Money Mules
Not every money mule is created equal, and they generally break down into three categories.
Unwitting Money Mules
Unwitting money mules (also called unknowing money mules) refer to those people who are not aware that they are part of a larger criminal scheme. Some of the telltale signs of an unwitting money mule include:
Someone who was solicited online
Someone who was asked to use their personal bank account (or to open a new account) to receive funds from someone they have never met in real life and was then asked to transfer all or part of the funds to yet another entity
Someone who does all this because he or she trusts that the job, date, friendship, or prize involved is real
Witting Money Mules
Witting money mules (also called knowing money mules) are those individuals who ignore all the glaring red flags and who turn a blind eye to the questionable financial activity going on. Some of the telltale signs of a witting money mule include:
Someone who may have been warned by bank employees that he or she was caught up in fraudulent activity
Someone who opens accounts with multiple banks (without out much concern)
Someone who may have started out as an unwitting money mule but who continues to communicate with the scammers and to participate in the scams long after the truth is made apparent
Someone who is ultimately motivated by his or her one financial gain or by his or her refusal to accept the fact that he or she is engaged in a financial scam
Complicit Money Mules
Complicit money mules are fully aware of the role they play in the scams in question, and they continue to actively participate in them. Some of the telltale signs of complicit money mules include:
Someone who actively opens multiple bank accounts to receive funds from multiple sources for the purpose of engaging in financial scams
Someone who actually advertises his or her services as a money mule and who charges a set rate for specific illegal actions
Someone who is willing to travel internationally to open bank accounts in different countries (for financial gain)
Someone who is motivated by his or her own financial gain and/or by his or her allegiance to a known criminal element
Someone who is not averse to recruiting other money mules
Stop Right There
There are certain signs that are usually indicative of a financial scam that is looking to use you as a money mule, and if you encounter any one of them, it is time to stop the matter right there. These signs include:
Online communications from a would-be employer that come from a web-based service, such as Gmail, instead of from a business-related email address
Any kind of unsolicited electronic message, including social media messaging that alludes to easy money
An online job offer that has no real job title and no real job description (other than depositing and sending money)
If you are asked to open a new bank account in your own name (for any reason) that you then proceed to use for receiving and transferring money (some of which you may be allowed to keep)
If someone you met online but never met in person starts talking about sending money back and forth
These are not activities you should be open to, and the first order of business should be shutting things down.
Seek the Legal Guidance of an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney Today
If you are facing a criminal charge, Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a savvy criminal defense attorney who has the experience, drive, and legal skill to help you. To learn more, please do not hesitate to contact us online or call us at 254-501-4040 today.