Most scams revolve around criminals trying to steal your money. Money mule scammers often aim to do that, too. Their ultimate objective, though, is to turn you into someone who helps them steal from others.
Money mules are people enlisted, often unwittingly, to serve as conduits for illegal gains, receiving scam proceeds from other targets and passing them along to the criminals. By acting as intermediaries, the mules give the crooks a cheap way to move money and cover their tracks.
These operators, often participants in transnational fraud rings, recruit mules in a variety of ways. Sometimes they pose as employers, posting job ads or sending out email and social media messages touting work-at-home gigs as a “finance officer” or “money processing agent.”
Take the job and you’ll soon discover it involves little more than receiving payments — usually into a new bank account you've been asked by your “boss” to set up for that purpose — and transferring the funds to other people you don’t know. You get to take a small commission from the money you transfer.
Crooks also line up mules through romance and sweepstakes scams, which frequently target older adults. The seeming sweetheart who’s been cultivating your affection and trust since you met on social media or a dating app, or the “lottery official” promising a big jackpot once you’ve made payments for taxes or fees, will eventually start pressing you to receive and send money through bank transfers, gift cards, cryptocurrency or other means.
The cash may come from other targets of the same scam, or from global criminal operations such as drug trafficking and human trafficking. During the COVID-19 pandemic, fraud rings have deployed mules to launder stolen relief funds such as enhanced unemployment benefits and small business loans.
Some targets believe the cover story and don’t realize that they’re being manipulated into abetting serial fraud. Others may see through the ruse but continue to participate, tempted by monetary gain or fearful of retribution if they cut the criminals off.
But being a money mule can be very costly, whether you know you’re doing it or not. If law enforcement gets wise to the underlying fraud, the crooks may simply vanish, leaving the mules to face consequences that can range from loss of banking privileges and reduced credit scores to prosecution, fines and jail time.
In 2021, federal authorities identified more than 4,600 suspected mules, recovered nearly $3.7 million in fraud proceeds and charged more than 30 people as part of the Money Mule Initiative, an annual crackdown on illicit fund transfers led by the Justice Department, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and other agencies.