FBI issues new warning about money mules

Photo (c) LIgorko - Getty Images

What seems simple and harmless can have serious consequences

If the term “mule” rings a bell, it might be that Clint Eastwood’s latest movie “The Mule” is a hot property this holiday season. And, out of pure coincidence, “money mules” are on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) list of hot properties. The agency is pointing to more than 1,500 money mules identified in a recent worldwide sting operation.

As ConsumerAffairs readers know, scams comes in all shapes and sizes -- from gift card scams to the “grandparent scam.” Most scams seem harmless when they’re introduced to the potential scamee, and that’s just the trigger the FBI wants consumers to be on the alert for.

“The ask comes through a job posting or from someone you meet online,” wrote the FBI in its warning. “It seems simple and harmless enough: provide your bank account information and allow money transfers to flow into your account. Then move the money elsewhere and maybe earn a little cash for the trouble. Easy, painless, profitable. Right?”

Wrong, says the FBI. What the consumer is actually doing is working in concert with criminals by acting as a money mule. And, whether it’s knowingly or naively, getting nabbed for that can land you in prison and wreck your financial standing for the rest of your life.

Mule tales

The FBI interviewed more than 300 people who had gotten caught up in a mule operation in one way or another. Their stories are probably the kind you can’t imagine yourself falling prey to, but people do.

For example, a man met another man on a dating website who purported to be a captain in the U.S. Army, stationed overseas. The so-called “Army captain” told the mule-in-waiting he was trying to arrange a trip back home to the U.S., but he needed some help. That “help” was for the target to receive some money and then send it elsewhere. The man had $10,000 wired into his bank account and was instructed to withdraw the money in small chunks and forward it to a woman in Texas.

In another situation, the mule train wound up on the doorstep of a retired advertising executive who happened to be looking to earn some extra money. In searching around for opportunities, he found a “work at home” gig online -- a business focused on facilitating importing and exporting. Unfortunately for him, he got that gig and was directed to create a business and open a bank account for that business. The scammer told him he’d receive a series of deposits and would be sent instructions as to where to send the money.

The targets in these incidents were probably blind to the fact that they were doing anything illegal. “It’s crucial to understand that what may look to be the harmless movement of money from place to place is anything but harmless,” said Special Agent James Abbott of the Bureau’s Money Laundering, Forfeiture, and Bank Fraud Unit at FBI Headquarters.

Forearmed is forewarned

The FBI has put together a “Money Mule Awareness” booklet and is asking all consumers to take some time and brush up on their knowledge of how mule scams work, and what to do if they come up against one.

Here are some highlights:

Signs You May Be Acting as a Money Mule

  • You received an unsolicited email or contact over social media promising easy money for little to no effort.

  • The “employer” you communicate with uses web-based email (such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or Outlook).

  • You are asked to open up 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 funds” or “transfer funds” via a wire transfer, ACH, mail, or money service business (such as Western Union or MoneyGram).

  • You are allowed to keep a portion 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, subsequently, forward the funds to an individual you do not know.

How to Protect Yourself

  • A legitimate company will not ask you to use your own bank account to transfer their money. Do not accept any job offers that ask you to do this.

  • Be wary when an employer asks you to form a company in order to open up a new bank account.

  • Never give your financial details to someone you don’t know and trust, especially if you met them online.

  • Be wary when job advertisements are poorly written with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.

  • Be suspicious when the individual you met on a dating website wants to use your bank account for receiving and forwarding money.

  • Perform online searches to check the information from any solicitation emails and contacts.

  • Ask the employer, “Can you send a copy of the license/permit to conduct business in my county or state?”

How to Respond

  • If you have received solicitations of this type, do not respond to them and do not click on any links they contain. Inform your local police or the FBI.

  • If you believe that you are participating in a money mule scheme, stop transferring money immediately and notify your bank, the service you used to conduct the transaction, and law enforcement.

The bottom line is that if anyone asks for your help in moving money in any shape, form, or fashion, you need to raise your hand. The FBI’s tip line is that go-to place and is available by phone or via the bureau’s Internet Complaint Center (IC3).

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