Brian Sims

Middle-aged money mules targeted by online laundering gangs

CIFAS AND UK Finance are warning of the increasing number of middle-aged money mules and businesses being recruited to launder money. Traditionally, criminals have focused on recruiting mostly younger people and students as money mules. However, there are now signs that middle-aged people are being targeted, with the latest data from the National Fraud Database revealing a 34% increase in the number of accounts belonging to 40-to-60 year-olds bearing the hallmarks of money mule activity since 2017.

Mule herders – ie those who recruit money mules – are likely to be targeting this age group on the belief that larger transactions typically made by this age group may be less likely to appear suspicious.

Research also shows that criminals are changing tack to trick unwitting mules into taking part. This includes placing fake job adverts on recruitment websites and social media platforms designed to gather applicants’ bank details by claiming they’re required in order for wages to be paid. In most cases, funds are then forwarded to the account and the unwitting mule is asked to transfer the money to a different account.

Data from the National Fraud Database has also revealed a rise in the number of business accounts bearing the hallmarks of money mule activity. In 2020, there was a 26% increase in the number of business accounts involved compared to the previous year. In line with the recruitment of middle-aged mules, criminals may perceive the movement of large sums in these business accounts as appearing to be less suspicious.

Furthermore, intelligence from Cifas and UK Finance members has pointed to criminals advertising on social media and Dark Web forums seeking those who had business accounts. To entice account holders, criminals often include screenshots of successful fraudulent Bounce Back Loan payments in the advert.

Cifas and UK Finance are reminding people of all ages that money muling is illegal and can have serious consequences. Often, people are unaware that allowing their bank account to be used in this way is an offence which will have long-term consequences when they’re caught. This could include a criminal record, having their bank account closed and difficulty opening one elsewhere, as well as trouble obtaining mobile phone contracts or accessing credit in future.

Individuals who become money mules are not always aware that the cash they’re laundering is often stolen from innocent victims of fraud, as well as used to facilitate serious crimes such as terrorism, drug trafficking and people smuggling.

Trying new techniques

Mike Haley, CEO of Cifas, commented: “Criminals have been upping their game to recruit money mules and abuse their accounts. There’s no doubt they have been looking to use different account holders and try different techniques to find out which transactions are the least likely to be detected and can launder the most funds.”

Haley continued: “However, banks and other institutions are collaborating to move quickly on this issue. In 2020, Cifas members shared over 31,000 alerts to warn other banks that their customers’ account had been identified as taking part in fraudulent conduct. It’s through such reciprocal data sharing that we’ll see the greatest impact in taking the fight to the fraudsters.”

Katy Worobec, managing director of Economic Crime at UK Finance, observed: “Criminals cruelly prey on those struggling to find work by using fake job adverts online to recruit people as money mules. We would urge everyone to remain cautious about any offers of quick and easy money and remember that, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

Worobec continued: “At the same time, online platforms must take swift action to detect and take down content being used to promote money muling activity. Organised criminal gangs use money mules to launder the profits of their devastating crimes, including fraud, drug smuggling and people trafficking. We all have a duty to stop them.”

Commenting on the online recruitment scams used to trick unwitting mules, Keith Rosser (chair of JobsAware) stated: “The emergence of middle-aged money mules shows how the pandemic has made it much easier for fraudsters to target people of all ages online. People of all ages have become increasingly reliant on technology because of COVID-19, and those aged in their 40s and 50s are no exception.”

Rosser concluded: “We’re pleased to see relevant organisations coming together to tackle this widespread issue. If jobseekers or those online see something that doesn’t look quite right, they should contact JobsAware so that we can report the issue to the right people.”

Offering advice to consumers worried about being tricked into taking part in such illegal activity, Jon Walters of Citizens Advice explained: “Your bank account is just that. Yours. If someone is asking you to transfer money in and out, no matter how they dress it up or how reassuring they may seem, protect yourself by saying ‘No’ to any such request.”

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