FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER
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.
- You receive a job offer via email or social media promising easy money for little or no effort.
- The “employer” communicates with you via a common web-based email service such as Gmail or Yahoo.
- You’re asked to set up a bank account in your own name so you can receive and transfer money on the employer’s behalf.
- Someone pursuing a romantic relationship online or offering a large lottery prize wants you to start receiving payments or products from strangers and passing them on.
How to protect yourself from this scam
- Do online research about an unfamiliar company that offers you a job, especially if the job description is vague.
- Do be wary of someone you met online or who contacted you out of the blue who asks you to open a new bank account or use an existing one to receive funds.
- Do stop communicating with anyone you suspect of trying to utilize you as a conduit for payments.
- Do keep any receipts, text messages, emails and voicemails from someone who pressures you to receive and transmit payments or products, so you can pass them along to authorities.
- Do contact your financial institution if you suspect you’ve been deceived into serving as a money mule. Consider changing your accounts, especially if you’ve provided any information to the scammers.
- Don’t take a job that asks you to use your own bank account to transfer money — a legitimate company will not do this — or that seems to involve little more than receiving and sending money orders, gift cards or other things of value.
- Don’t share sensitive financial information such as account logins and passwords with someone you don’t know and trust, especially if you met them online.
- Don’t agree to let people you don’t know deposit money into your bank account.
- Don’t purchase gift cards or cryptocurrency at someone else’s direction. Scammers like these mediums of exchange because they’re difficult to trace.
- Don’t agree to collect packages for someone else and resend them. Criminals sometimes use reshipped goods to get the proceeds from their primary scams.
- If you think you are being or have been recruited to serve as a money mule, report it to:
- If the scam utilized the mail, call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 877-876-2455 or file an online report.
Published March 30, 2022