Money Mules: How Organized Crime Groups Recruit Via Social Media For Money Laundering
When criminals profit from crime, they need to make their money look legitimate. Criminals avoid using their bank accounts to transfer their criminal funds directly as this would easily link them to their criminality. The criminals first want to move the money around to create a complicated trial. To do this, they launder the money, moving it around through legitimate bank accounts, known as ‘layering’, which helps to make the laundered money entering their account appear legitimate.
To launder money, criminals need access to legitimate banks accounts. One of the ways criminals launder money is through money mules who facilitate the movement of illicit funds. Criminals recruit mules, members of the public without ties to criminality, who have ‘clean’ bank accounts. Money is moved quickly through a series of mules accounts, enabling the money to go back to the criminal having passed through several legitimate accounts.
According to the UK’s National Crime Agency, international criminal groups are frequently behind money mule schemes. These criminals conduct business email compromise, a phishing attack where they send an email to the businesses making the company think their suppliers are requesting fund payment into a different account. The bank account for receiving funds has to look legitimate to the victim, so criminal groups require access to national high street bank accounts. Criminal groups employ money mules, who provide existing bank accounts to facilitate the transfer.
In most cases, each mule will receive a small cut of the money that passes through their account. This money is either used to support deceiving innocent mules or incentivize participating mules. In some cases, mule recruiters deceive mules, promising profit but removing all the illicit funds.
During the pandemic, total online fraud increased, with a 5% increase in money mule scams recorded in 2020 in the UK. A joint report from UK Finance, the trade association for the banking and financial services sector, and Cifas, a fraud protection body, documented 17,000 money mule cases in 2020 in the UK involving young people aged 21-30. Younger people, aged 21-30, account for 42% of money mules and are likely targetted due to lower incomes and less awareness.
Money mule operations can be established at a small scale, with criminals recruiting mules themselves. Large scale money mule operations usually involve money mule recruiters, sometimes also referred to as “mule herders” and “pickers”. Mule recruiters work on behalf of criminal groups to recruit money mules to move illicit funds through their bank accounts. Whether employed by mule recruiters or the money owner themselves, money mules are usually recruited through one of three approaches; deception, honesty, and coercion.
When using deceptive recruitment, mule recruiters use techniques to trick innocent parties into laundering money for them. Mule recruiters attempt to make money transfers appear legitimate through refund scams and fake jobs.
Refund scams involve mule recruiters masquerading as internet service or energy providers, who call victims and suggest that they are eligible for a refund (i.e $100). Many victims hand over their account details to receive the refund, enabling the criminal to launder their money. Once the ‘refund’ has been transferred, the sum received is much more than discussed (i.e. $5000), and the mule recruiter will ask the victim to transfer the excess sum ($4900) to another account.
Alternatively, mule recruits also recruit victims into fake jobs. Money mule roles have previously been advertised on job advertisement pages like Indeed under job titles including “currency controllers” and “treasury function”. The Guardian previously reported a case where a victim, “Lauren”, was offered a remote role as an agent for cryptocurrency transactions. 21-year-old Lauren was offered £500 - £1,000 a week for this role, enabling her to pay off her debts. Promoted by social media connections, Lauren trusted the job advert and applied. Lauren provided her 'employer' with passport scans, her address, and her bank details for ID verification, which facilitated the money laundering. Lauren also opened a cryptocurrency account and two savings accounts, which facilitated money laundering.
In contrast to Deceptive Recruitment, Honest Recruitment is where mule recruiters are upfront about the nature of the work involved. Mule recruits openly advertise on social media, seeking individuals who will agree to move money for them in return for keeping a share. Mule recruiters advertise and reach out to people on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Snapchat, offering quick and easy money.
Once recruited, mule recruiters or their associates will transfer money into the mule's bank account. Mules are responsible for withdrawing money out in cash or transferring it to a different account, usually keeping a small percentage. Cash is difficult to trace, so the mule withdrawing cash and paying it into another account provides a layer of safety to the organized cringe group.
Mule recruiters can be found on social media by searching for hashtags or key phrases, such as instantmoney. An example mule recruiter account can be seen in the Instagram screenshot below.
When using coercion, mule recruiters will threaten victims with acts of violence against them or their friends and family. Coercion is usually not used to recruit a new mule but instead to keep a mule who has already been recruited through dishonest or honest tactics involved in handling money.
Money mules may attempt to stop acting as a mule for several reasons. Mules may discover the truth behind their recruitment or decide to quit, having made sufficient profit or fearing the consequences of their actions.
Organized crime groups utilize multiple mules when laundering money, meaning they must always have several available. Finding new mules is time and labor-intensive for mule recruiters and their overt strategies risk detection by law enforcement. Mule recruiters will generally utilize a mule as long as possible to avoid this process. When mules are no longer willing to be complicit in a money-laundering operation, organized crime groups can rely on coercion to persuade them to continue. Having already been actively engaged in a crime, the organized crime group may expect the victim to be reluctant to speak with law enforcement.
Mule recruiters frequently advertise money mule roles as a low-risk, high-reward activity. In reality, when banks or law enforcement detect suspicious activity, there can be serious consequences for involved parties.
The consequences could include:
- Accounts linked to money laundering are frequently frozen, with contained money seized, meaning the mules lose their profits.
- When money is seized, organized criminal groups may hold mules responsible, demanding a large debt repayment with interest.
- Immediate closure of involved bank accounts.
- Recording of the names of the money mules in fraud databases, like CIFAS.
- Banks may be unwilling to open a new account or lend money.
- Criminal prosecution, resulting in a criminal record and a prison sentence. In the UK, a conviction for money laundering could mean up to 14 years in prison.
The money mule process can involve several different hierarchies and routes. A common scenario is outlined below:
- An international organized crime group extorts people and businesses for money, which needs to be laundered out of the victim's country.
- The organized crime group employs mule recruiters to recruit money mules.
- Mule recruiters advertise for employees on social media, displaying images and videos of cash and designer goods.
- Social media users engage with the mule recruiters, seeking to make money quickly.
- Interested social media users become money mules, handing control of their bank account to organized crime groups.
- The organized crime group moves money into a money mules account, leaving a small percentage before repeating this process with another mules account.
- Money sharing businesses are commonly used to help move the laundered funds abroad.
An example organized money mule operation can be seen in the network chart below. This chart demonstrates how international organized crime groups manage their money-laundering operations through multiple money mules.
The money mule process doesn’t always involve traditional high street banks but can also involve cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrencies provide an ideal way for criminals to store, transfer, and convert illicit funds as they are harder to investigate. Similar to money mules, crypto mules are hired by mule recruiters to wittingly or unwittingly allow criminals to transfer illicit funds through their crypto wallets in exchange for a small commission of the facilitated transaction.
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