The Australian Federal Police (AFP) is warning Australians to be vigilant online after a spike in criminal syndicates using job advertisements and romance scams to recruit money mules.
In partnership with Europol and the European Money Mule Action (EMMA), the AFP is launching the #dontbeaMule campaign to raise awareness of the ways criminals will recruit unwitting individuals to launder money offshore.
Australian authorities have noticed over the last 12 months an increase in seemingly-legitimate job offers and advertisements targeting those in economic hardship, the unemployed, students and recent immigrants. These groups are seizing on opportunities presented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with people seeking to work from home.
The results of the sixth annual European Money Mule Action campaign over the past three months provides an insight into the scale of the problem world-wide. Law enforcement activity directed by Europol between September and November 2020 identified 3,876 money mules, 212 money mule recruiters and more than 4,800 money mule transactions in 26 countries.
Money mule scams are typically employment or romance scams.
Job advertisements are usually from overseas companies seeking ‘local representatives’ and offer a work from home arrangement. They will request someone undertake invoicing or accounts processing work, using their personal bank account to receive funds and then transfer them offshore – after deducting a commission for their efforts. These funds will often be sent to offshore bank accounts, through wire transfer services or converted to cryptocurrency.
Romance scams will involve the scammer building an online relationship with a victim, before eventually transferring money into their bank account with a request to send this money offshore to people claimed to be friends or family members.
The reality is that people transferring these funds are money mules, and these scams are a cover for criminals’ money laundering efforts. Criminal groups operating in Australia seek the use of legitimate Australian bank accounts to move money from a targeted or compromised account out of the country quickly. By routing it through a legitimate account held in Australia, it also helps to obfuscate the flow of money, making it difficult to track.
AFP Commander Cybercrime Operations Chris Goldsmid said economic hardship means it is easy to fall for promises of easy money, but cautioned that money mules – including unwitting ones – are complicit in these serious crimes.
“Organised criminals know there are many risks associated with having Australian bank accounts used for scams directly linked to them, so they recruit unknowing Australians to carry out their dirty work.” Commander Goldsmid said.
“People involved in these activities may be committing money laundering offences. Money laundering is a serious offence, with jail terms of up to five years for dealing in amounts of more than $1000.”
“The funds that people are being asked to move are the proceeds of other criminal thefts, such as those facilitated by business email compromise, false invoices or confidence scams. If people are aware of how criminals use money mules, it makes it harder for scammers to profit from their activities, and gives banks, regulators and police a better opportunity to detect and prevent such activity.”
People who believe they have been lured into being a money mule should report it to Report Cyber (www.cyber.gov.au/acsc/report) or their local police. They should also notify their bank or payment provider/service.