According to reports, criminals are recruiting a rising number of teenagers to act as money mules—a person who agrees to transfer funds on behalf of someone else, often without knowing they are laundering money. Victims may initially be recruited online with the promise to make a quick buck, but the scam can be devastating, resulting in a host of financial and even legal problems for the victim. Learn these 7 tips to help you and your loved ones better detect and avoid money mule scams.
The Consequences Can Be Dire for Money Mules
A money mule is someone who transfers funds on behalf of, or at the direction of, another person. The transaction could be in the form of a bank transfer, money services transaction, pre-paid card, cryptocurrency, or even cash. Often, money mules are not aware they are part of a larger fraud network.
Whether an individual serves as a money mule knowingly or unknowingly, they could still face grave consequences, including identity theft, personal liability, lowered credit scores, or problems opening a financial account in the future. In more serious cases, victims may experience threats of violence or physical attacks if they stop transferring money on behalf of the criminal. Victims could also be charged with fraud, money laundering, and other crimes that may be have penalties of hefty fines or even prison sentences.
The rise in teenage money mules has caused concern for both parents and officials, and the prevalence of global money mule networks has prompted massive law enforcement efforts in the US and around the world to try to halt the activity.
Social Media Is a Hot Spot for Money Mule Recruitment
Teenage victims can be recruited through sports clubs or schools, but one of the main recruiting hubs for money mules may be online. Experts say that young people are vulnerable partly because of their widespread use of social media, where criminals may use hashtags like #RealMoneyTransfers and #legitmoneyflips to attract potential victims. Victims may also be approached online under the guise of a job offer, sweepstakes, or relationship.
In February 2020, Instagram and YouTube influencer Kayla Massa was charged with conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud after recruiting victims via social media to help her launder money. She promised her victims quick cash if they gave her access to their empty bank account, ATM card, and PIN code in order to receive deposits, which she claimed was legal and legitimate. According to reports, Massa used the accounts to deposit fraudulently obtained money orders and counterfeit checks and then withdraw the cash before the banks discovered the fraud. Some victims were left to deal with thousands of dollars in overdrafts and collection notices, while Massa and her accomplices reportedly brought in over $1.5M in the scheme.
Potential Warning Signs of a Money Mule Scam
Pay attention to these warning signs that you or a loved one may unknowingly be a money mule:
- You receive an unsolicited email or social media message that promises easy money for little to no effort.
- You are asked to open a bank account in your name or in the name of a company you form to receive and transfer money.
- An employer asks you to receive funds in your bank account and then process or transfer funds.
- You are asked to transfer funds in exchange for a portion of the deposited money.
- An online contact you have never met asks you to receive money and transfer the funds to someone you do not know.
- An offer of employment is made by someone using free online email services, such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail, and there is no specific job description.
Tips to Avoid Inadvertently Becoming a Money Mule
Learn these 7 tips to help you and your loved ones better detect and avoid money mule scams.
- Don’t transfer money on behalf of another person - The Federal Trade Commission advises never to move money on behalf of someone who contacts you, even if they promise a relationship, job, or prize in exchange.
- Keep financial accounts private - It’s advised to never give another person your bank account details, unless you fully trust and know the person receiving them.
- Be wary of too-good-to-be-true offers - Be cautious of unsolicited offers of easy money, as this is a common tactic used by criminals to recruit money mules. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
- Research job opportunities thoroughly - The FBI advises not to accept job offers that ask you to receive company funds into a personal account or ask you to open a business bank account. Research potential job opportunities by conducting an online search using the subject line of the email solicitation, the name of the organization, and the contact name.
- Don’t fall for a romance scam - Be suspicious if a romantic partner asks you to receive or transfer funds from your account.
- Tell someone you trust - If you suspect you might be a target of a money mule scam, talk to someone you trust, whether it’s a parent, tutor, or close friend.
- Look for warning signs in your teenager - Pay attention to any warning signs in your teen, such as becoming more secretive, withdrawn, or stressed or the sudden appearance of extra cash, new clothes, or a new smartphone or device.
What To Do If You Believe You Are a Victim:
If you believe you or a loved one are being targeted or used as a money mule:
- Immediately stop communicating with the suspected individual and stop transferring funds or items of value
- Notify law enforcement
- Notify your bank or payment provider
- Keep receipts, contact information, and communications (emails, text messages, and voicemails) to give to law enforcement
The US Department of Justice encourages victims to file a complaint online with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center or by calling 1-800-225-5324.
For more information, get the Money Mule Awareness booklet from the US Department of Justice.