Money mules’ operations in times of COVID 19!

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don’t be a victim

Can I use your bank account details to receive my salary or money from a friend? Can I use your accounts details to transfer money abroad? Can we use your private (personal) account details for a business transaction? I believe we are familiar with these questions and have even been victims in the past before? If yes, then you might have been a money mule and could have been jailed for helping to launder money for a criminal. Global mule networks form the primary way to siphon proceeds of crime money through the banking ecosystem in an attempt to avoid detection and capture.

In this time of COVID 19, where a lot of people might lose their jobs, others will have a pay cut, economies will suffer and businesses will change their business models, the criminal will also take advantage of the situation by using the above scenarios on vulnerable people to advance his or her criminal activities because people will be cash trapped.

A money mule, sometimes called a “smurfer,” is a person who transfers money acquired illegally (e.g., stolen) in person, through a courier service, or electronically, on behalf of others. Typically, the mule is paid for services with a small part of the money transferred. Money mules are often dupes recruited online for what they think is legitimate employment, not aware that the money they are transferring is the product of crime. The money is transferred from the mule’s account to the scam operator, typically in another country. Fraudsters often target people who don’t have a history of criminal activity to make these transactions seem less suspicious to banks. You won’t know where the money is coming from, or where it’s going, but it could be used to fund drugs, child trafficking or even terrorism.

Criminals who run money mules’ scams will pose as employers offering genuine employment, via job adverts and personal approach. These criminals will recruit their mule from schools (Universities, Technical Universities, and Colleges) and will offer job opportunities to the students. The criminal will use the bank account details of these students to collect monies for the supposed goods and/ or services rendered. The funds are then transferred to other accounts, mostly abroad. A recent publication on the website of The London Economic (www.thelondoneconomic.com) suggests that a bank staff helped the UK authorities to bust a criminal gang that laundered £1.5 million using foreign students’ bank accounts. This phenomenon (money mule) is taking root in our youth, especially students in this difficult time of COVID 19.

Another way criminals use money mules to launder their dirty money is when they (criminals) buy the account details of international students who have graduated and are leaving the country. These students are tricked into believing that their actions are harmless and can earn some extra cash. The funds are laundered into these accounts and transferred to other accounts controlled by the criminal using internet banking and/ or other means.

This activity is encouraged because of the “quick to get rich” syndrome among our young graduates. As for money mules, they’re persuaded, sometimes with the incentive of keeping a cut of the funds, into allowing money transfers to their own bank accounts at the direction of a criminal they may mistake for an employer, online friend, or romantic partner. They’re then instructed to transfer those funds elsewhere, into accounts controlled by criminals.

Criminals are increasingly targeting young people (especially cash-strapped students) for this purpose through social media (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter, etc). They message them with promises of making quick and easy money by lending them their bank account details including their debit card and PIN.

The following characteristics do not necessarily indicate a money mule solicitation, but they are common red flags to indicate solicitations:

  • The position involves transferring money or goods.
  • The specific job duties are not described
  • The company is located in another country
  • The position does not list education or experience requirements
  • All interactions and transactions will be done online
  • The offer promises significant earning potential for little effort
  • The writing is awkward and includes poor sentence structure
  • The email address associated with the offer uses a web-based service (Gmail, Yahoo, Windows Live Hotmail, etc.) instead of an organization-based domain.

In order to fight against this menace of money laundering and terrorist financing, the citizenry, especially the youth, should take the following steps to protect themselves from being used as money mules.

If an opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Look for common warning signs, and do some research before agreeing to participate. If you believe that you are participating in a money mule scheme, stop transferring money and merchandise immediately and notify the appropriate authorities such as your bank, the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC), and the law enforcement authorities.

Another way people could protect themselves from being used as a money mule is not allowing people to use your account details for their banking transactions. Encourage them to get their own bank account.

Never answer messages or give positive follow-up to telephone calls promising you large amounts of money in exchange for submitting your bank account number or requesting that you carry out international transactions for someone.

We should note that money mules don’t just attack one bank but they attack all banks. But the problem with information sharing between banks makes it hard for the financial industry to stem the flow. Also linking the bank account details from different banks of a customer to a national database will go a long way in the fight against money mules used to launder money. This is so because once the customer is identified as a money mule and blacklisted from having a bank account, he or she will not be able to operate a bank account in another bank for a number of years. This is similar to what the Central Bank of Nigeria has implemented in Nigeria called the Bank Verification Number (BVN).

By have a robust KYC and due diligence procedures at the account opening stage, Financial Institutions will be able to effectively detect that something is amiss with the kind of transactions being performed. For this to be effective and efficient, the KYC procedure should not be an event but a process.

Continuous account monitoring is critical to ensure that bank accounts are reviewed for unusual and suspicious activity. Financial Institutions should pay close attention to high-risk transactions in these accounts, such as activities that have no business or apparently lawful purpose, funds transfers to and from higher-risk jurisdictions, currency-intensive transactions, and frequent changes in the ownership or control of a privately own business entity.

Not realizing that you are a Money Mule and that money laundering is a crime is never accepted as an excuse (ignorance of the law is not an excuse) – you could still face prosecution by the police. Never be fooled by offers of quick cash. Once you become a Money Mule, it can be difficult to stop. You could be attacked or threatened with violence if you don’t continue to allow your account to be used by criminals.

Would you mind doing me a favor? Share this article with someone so that the awareness of money laundering and terrorist financing could be spread to avoid being used as a conduit by criminals.

If you require further information on this article, please contact Richieson @[email protected]

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