What Is a Money Mule?
A money mule, sometimes called a “smurfer,” is a person who transfers illegally acquired money (e.g., stolen) on behalf of or at the direction of another. Criminals recruit mules to move money electronically through bank accounts, move physical currency, or assist the movement of money through a variety of other methods. Typically, the mule is paid for services with a small part of the money transferred. Money mules are often dupes recruited on-line for what they think is legitimate employment, not aware that the money they are transferring is the product of crime. Once received, the mule will wire the money into a third party bank account; “cash out” the money received, possibly via several cashier’s checks; convert the money into a virtual currency; convert the money into a prepaid debit card; send the money through a money service business; or conduct a combination of these actions. Money mules are inherently dangerous, as they add layers to the money trail from a victim to a criminal actor.
More than 90% of money mule transactions identified are linked to cybercrime. 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.
Money Mules Are Vital To Criminals.
Why Do Criminals Use Money Mules?
- Speed – Criminals believe they can direct the movement of victim funds through money mules, faster than law enforcement can keep track. This is not always true.
- Low Cost – If the money mule takes a percentage of money, this is victim money which never actually belonged to the criminal.
- Low Risk – Each money mule adds one more level of distance between the victim and criminal actors.
- Evolution of Crime – Criminals adapt their behaviors as necessary, based on the evolution of law enforcement and financial sector practices.
Where Does The Money Come From?
Criminals obtain money through various illegal acts. These criminals then need someone to move this money at their direction. Common Criminal Activities:
- Internet-enabled Frauds (Online Job Scam, Credit Card Fraud, etc)
- Drug Trafficking
- Human Trafficking
Money Mule Indicators
You may be a money mule if:
- You received an unsolicited email or contact over social media which promises easy money for little or no effort.
- The “employer” you communicate with uses web-based services such as (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Outlook, etc.).
- 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.
- You are told to keep a fraction of the money you transfer.
Your duties have no specific job description.
- Your online companion, whom you have never met in person, asks you to receive money and then forward these funds to one or more persons you do not know.
If you think you are a Money Mule:
Stop! communication with any suspected criminals
Stop! transferring money or any other items of value
Maintain any receipts, contact information and relevant communications (emails, chats, text messages)
Notify Law Enforcement
Where are Money Mules Recruited?
- Online job websites. Seemingly legitimate job offers (e.g. ‘money transfer agents’) announced via online job forums, emails, social media (e.g. Facebook posts in closed groups, Instagram, Snapchat) or pop-up ads.
- Online dating websites
- Social networking websites. Direct messages sent through instant messaging apps (e.g. WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram) or by email
- Online classifieds
- Email Spam or Darkweb Forums
Money mules are recruited, sometimes unwittingly, by criminals to transfer illegally obtained money between different bank accounts. Money mules receive the stolen funds into their account, they are then asked to withdraw it and wire the money to a different account, often one overseas, keeping some of the money for themselves.
Even if you’re unaware that the money you’re transferring was illegally obtained, you have played an important role in fraud and money laundering, and can still be prosecuted. Criminals will often use fake job adverts, or create social media posts about opportunities to make money quickly, in order to lure potential money mule recruits.
What To Do?
- If you have received emails of this type do not respond to them and do not click on any links they contain. Inform the police instead.
- Stay alert for job ads and social media posts that promise easy money. Always report the account to the platform provider in order to be taken down and prevent other people from falling for the scam.
- If you happen to receive an offer in person, decline it and report it to the police.
- If you suspect that you are caught up in a money mule or money laundering scheme, stop transferring money immediately, notify your bank or payment provider, and report it to your national police. You could help prevent other people from becoming money mules and even help catch the criminals.
The Money Mule Complicity Spectrum
1. Unwitting or Unknowing
Persons unaware they are part of a bigger scheme:
- Often solicited via an online romance scheme or online job scheme.
- Asked to use their established personal bank account or open a new account in their true name to receive money from someone they have never met in person.
- May be told to keep a fraction of the money they transferred.
- Motivation: Trust in the actual existence of their romance or job position.
Individuals who choose to ignore obvious red flags or act willfully blind to their money movement activity:
- They may have been warned by bank employees they were involved with fraudulent activity.
- They open accounts with multiple banks in their true name.
- They may have been unwitting at first but continue communication and participation.
- Motivation: Financial gain
Persons aware of their role as a money mule and complicit in the larger criminal schemes:
- Serially open bank accounts to receive money from a variety of individuals/businesses for criminal reasons.
- Advertise their services as a money mule, to include what actions they offer and at what prices. This may also include a review and/or rating by other criminal actors on the money mule’s speed and reliability.
- Travel, as directed, to different countries to open financial accounts or register companies.
- Operate funnel accounts to receive fraud proceeds from multiple lower level money mules.
- Recruit other money mules.
- Motivation: Financial gain or loyalty to a known criminal group.
Who is at Risk?
- Newcomers to the country (often targeted soon after arrival), unemployed people, students, those in economic hardship.
- Small business owners
- Elderly individuals or Recent retirees
- Those looking for a job or a relationship
- Those with memory loss
- Anyone… Anywhere
How to Protect Yourself
- A legitimate company will not ask to use your own bank account to transfer their money. Do not accept any job offers asking you to do this.
- Be cautious when an employer asks you to form a company in order to open up a new bank account.
- Never give your financial information to someone you do not know and trust, particularly if you met them online.
- Be cautious when job advertisements are poorly written with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.
- Be suspicious when the boyfriend/girlfriend you met on a dating website wants to use your bank account for receiving and forwarding money.
- Perform online searches to verify any questionable information provided to you.
- Ask the employer, “Can you send a copy of the license/permit to conduct business in my county & state?”
The following characteristics do not necessarily indicate money mule solicitation, but they are commonly used:
- A job offer where the specific job duties are not described, the position does not list educational or experience requirements or involves transferring money or goods,
- A job offer where all interactions and transactions will be done online. The offer promises significant earning potential for little effort
- Money mule adverts can copy a genuine company’s website and have a similar web address in order to make the scam seem authentic. 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.
- Someone you do not know asks you to move their money through your bank account and offers you a cut.
- 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.
Remember: illegal money will come and go through your bank account, but in the end the responsibility will stay with you.
Money Mules In The Money Laundering Cycle
Money mules serve as the “placement” and/or “layering” aspects of the Money Laundering Cycle and allow “true” criminals to distance themselves from the victim (source of funds).
Money mules often do not realize they could be moving money tied to human trafficking or other crimes.
- Placement: the movement of funds to a money mule, often by wire transfer deposit into the money mule’s bank account. In this phase, a victim or a criminal provides money to the money mule to move, based on the criminal’s instruction. Some money mules never touch a computer.
- Layering: Money is moved from the initial money mule account to other money mule accounts or other criminals involved in the scheme. In this phase, funds are moved among money mules and criminals and possibly split into multiple transactions or converted into additional forms of value. These might include: wire transfers, cashier’s checks, virtual currency, or physical cash.
- Integration: the movement of laundered money back into the financial system.
Potential Consequence for Money Mules
Money mules help criminals launder their proceeds derived from criminal activities, by adding layers of recipients to the money trail. These layers complicate and negatively impact the FBI’s ability to accurately trace the money from a specific victim to a criminal actor. If you are a money mule you could be charged as part of the criminal money laundering conspiracy and potentially face the following consequences:
- Prosecution and incarceration: Money mules may be prosecuted by law enforcement for participating in criminal activities and sentenced to jail time.
- Compromised personal identifiable information: Money mules’ own personally identifiable information may be stolen by the very criminals they are working for and used for other criminal activities.
- Personal liability: Money mules may be held personally liable for repaying the money lost by victims.
- Negative impact on credit: Money mule activities may result in negative credit ratings.
- Inability to open bank accounts: Money mule activities may result in banks refusing to open bank accounts in the future.
Federal Violations and Penalties
- Mail Fraud: Maximum 20 years’ imprisonment and/or $250,000 fine. If financial institution is affected – maximum $1 million fine or 30 years imprisonment or both.
- Wire Fraud: Maximum 20 years’ imprisonment If financial institution is affected – maximum $1 million fine or 30 years’ imprisonment or both.
- Bank Fraud: Maximum $1 million fine or 30 years’ imprisonment or both.
- Money Laundering: Maximum $500,000 or maximum 20 years’ imprisonment or both.
- Money Laundering: Maximum $250,000 or maximum 10 years’ imprisonment or both.
- Prohibition of Unlicensed Money Transmitting Businesses: Maximum 5 years’ imprisonment