According to research by the Home Office, serious organised crime cost the UK £24 billion in 2013 and that figure is now thought to be even higher. And money mules, also known as money transfer agents, are playing a large part in this increase.

While most people have heard of drug mules, who claim to have unwittingly transported drugs from one location to another, money mules are less well known. So, what are they and how do people become involved in what is a criminal activity?

What is a money mule?

It’s a similar premise to drug mules, except money mules transport money and not drugs. They are recruited by criminals, sometimes unwittingly, to transfer illegally obtained money from one bank account to another.

However, it doesn’t matter whether the person recruited to carry out any transferring of funds unwittingly or not, it’s still considered fraud or money laundering and carries a hefty prison sentence of up to 14 years if they’re found guilty.

Funds are usually paid into the mule’s bank account, then at a given time they are required to make a withdrawal and then asked to wire the money to a different account. The account is often overseas to make the transfer more difficult for fraud investigators to trace. The mules keep some of the money themselves as payment for their services.   

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The recruitment process

While we’re constantly warned against giving out our bank details to strangers, fraudsters are coercing potential money mules to do just that. So how do fraudsters get people to part with their bank account details? The answer is simple – the lure of easy money.

Job adverts or social media posts promising a large amount of money for very little work is a key method of ‘recruitment’. Criminals pretend to offer legitimate jobs and often target vulnerable groups such as migrant workers and students who may be tempted by the offer of a quick and easy way to make some cash in return for handing over their bank details.

The mules freely hand over bank details to potential employers without properly researching them, which leaves them wide open to becoming part of a fraudulent business.

A convicted fraudster has revealed to the City of London Police’s Proactive Intelligence Team how fraudsters are targeting unsuspecting members of the public to act as money mules for them.

“Adverts are placed in foreign newspapers to recruit people to come to the UK and open fraudulent accounts. They are described as ‘no experience necessary, all expenses paid working holidays to London’.”

The adverts sound too good to be true, because they are.

Protecting yourself

Launching a crackdown on money mules, the City of London Police’s Commander Chris Greany said: “The City of London Police has recently been working with the National Crime Agency on a large operation which saw over 700 money mules being identified across Europe and 81 individuals arrested. This proactive work highlights the extent of this type of criminality and how easy it can be for people sometimes to unknowingly get involved in organised crime.”

The City of London Police offers the following advice to anyone wanting to “protect themselves from crooks who are looking to involve people in their web of criminality:

  • No legitimate company will ever ask you to use your bank account to transfer their money. Don’t accept job offers that ask you to do this.
  • Be wary of job offers from people or companies overseas as it will be harder for you find out if they really are legitimate
  • Never give your financial details to someone you don’t know and trust.

You can find out more information about money mules, including examples of adverts and job offers, on the Financial Fraud Action UK website.

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