Alert over rise of ‘money mules’ used to launder criminals’ cash

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CRIMINALS are increasingly using “money mules” to launder cash through bank accounts, new research has revealed.

Often those who get involved are innocently lured into the practice without realising they are being duped by criminals to pay money into their personal accounts and transfer it on, allowing illegal gains to disappear into the system.

Sometimes those involved know exactly what is happening but there are concerns fraudsters are persuading innocent people to do personal favours or are offering what appears to be a genuine job to people in return for a small fee but, in fact, they are laundering cash.

In a recent development, the UK’s fraud prevention service said companies are also being used, with crooks hijacking an established name to dupe victims into illegally moving money under the pretext they will be working for the well-known company.

Sending emails and other information claiming to be from an established firm with a good name encourages the victim to believe they are being paid to do a genuine role.

Often those carrying out the frauds only realise what has been going on when they are contacted by their bank. By this time the fraudster has disappeared and the victim is left to shoulder the blame and persuade the authorities he or she had no idea what was going on.

One such student, who cannot be identified, answered a job advert on the internet for staff needed to work at home.

“Obviously, extra amounts of money for only a few hours work per week from home seemed ideal,” she said. “I never questioned it, as there seemed nothing untoward: I would be a sales and delivery agent for some legitimate goods, working for a small company.

“For arranging some ‘sales’ and sending the goods, I’d receive a cheque for pay and costs, and then forward money to my ‘employer’. The first few months were fine when – after a very successful month – I got a phone call from my bank saying that the cheque for my pay and costs that had just been paid in was fraudulent and investigations had proved that the account from which it was drawn was fraudulent too.

“I was out of pocket and suspected of being ‘in on it’ of course.”

Figures from Cifas, the UK’s fraud prevention service, show there has been a 12 per cent hike in the numbers of accounts legitimately obtained but later used fraudulently, in the first ten months of this year, in comparison with 2010. Over the same period there has been a six per cent increase in the misuse of personal current accounts.

Cifas says a large proportion of these frauds display the hallmarks of money laundering.

In one recent case the boss of a well-established travel company discovered that crooks had hijacked her company’s good name, sending out emails claiming to be from her company, giving the impression the victim was working for her.

She said: “Although they’re using my corporate and not my personal details to defraud another company, the situation is practically identical: duping others into acting criminally under the pretence of working for me. All, of course, using the internet – making it even harder to track the culprits down and stop them.”

Richard Hurley, Cifas communication manager, said: “Whether they are referred to as scams or frauds, the effect is the same: people are duped into committing fraud. This often leaves the innocent victim who acted as the mule needing to prove that they were duped. This can be a truly traumatic experience for the mule victim: committing fraud can have some very serious consequences, as businesses have a regulatory and commercial requirement to suspend or close accounts that are involved in fraud.

Mr Hurley added: “Being asked to receive and then pay monies while keeping a fee for your services – whether for an individual or company – will almost always prove to be nothing more than a scam designed to use your good name and financial records to mask someone else’s criminal greed. And it is the mules, even the innocent ones, not the fraudsters, who are left to sort out the consequences.”