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Money Mules: A Private Eye’s insight into the face of fraud in the digital age

Image source: Shutterstock.

Are you out of a job and looking for work? It’s not always easy, is it? In days gone by, searching for employment was all about checking the newspaper, looking out for signs in windows, or getting a gig through a friend or relative. However, for most Australians these days, at least part of your job search will take place over the internet – through online classifieds, or specialised employment websites.


You might have sent off so many emails to prospective employers in the last few weeks that you can barely remember what you’ve applied for. And be honest, it’s unlikely you carefully scrutinised each job description for signs that it may be suspicious – after all, they were all advertised on reputable careers sites; surely they do all the necessary checks before accepting a stranger’s money and posting their job ad. Right?


And perhaps there was nothing that seemed suspicious about the way the job was described. But perhaps that job doesn’t even exist. And now they have your email address.


So after weeks, or even months, of not hearing anything back from employers, an email appears in your inbox offering you a job! You’re understandably excited, but hardly surprised – it’s not as though you weren’t expecting an email like this eventually. You open the email and begin reading.


Before you start employment, it advises, you’ll need to provide them with some personal details; and, more importantly, your bank account number, account name, and BSB. Perhaps your “duties” as an employee will be described in that email or in subsequent correspondence, but the way the job works is as follows:


A sum of money will be transferred to your account.


Then, all you have to do is transfer the money – minus your commission, of course – to a third account, the details of which will be provided. Easy! You can work from home, too.


Okay, so maybe something doesn’t seem quite right about this. The emails are a little poorly written perhaps…then again, not much worse than how your friends write on Facebook. Although come to think of it, why would they need to employ someone just to transfer money to an account? But you’re a little naïve – or more likely, a little desperate. So you choose not to think about it too much, and decide to just go with it.


And now you’re a money mule. This is basically just crowdsourced money-laundering, the money you receive typically having been stolen from another account. If it’s passed around a bit first, it’s a lot easier to disguise where it’s come from – and a lot easier to get it past the security measures that might normally prevent these funds from leaving the country, for example. I’ve seen plenty of cases where the “mule” in question presents themselves as a largely innocent victim, duped by a bunch of slick offshore criminals. But the police may not see it that way – depending on the circumstances, you may be prosecuted.


This might be the most straightforward way to make a mule out of you, but it’s not the only way. A friend of mine who works in fraud prevention for an online retailer described the following clever scam to me:


An order is placed through their website, usually for something expensive and small (e.g., electronics), but it can be for anything. The payment is made with a stolen credit card.


The address provided for delivery is that of the mule, who may have been recruited in similar circumstances to those described above. This time, their job is not to pass on funds, but rather to pass on packages – they’ll be provided with a forwarding address by the scammers. Maybe the mule gets paid; maybe they get promised money but never see a dime.


By the time the online retailer is alerted to the fact that the credit card details were stolen (and that, therefore, they’re out of pocket), the goods are long gone, and the scammer has a new email address. Another twist on this involves the scammer placing a “for sale” ad on a classifieds website (for a product they don’t have). When they find a buyer, they place an order with an online retailer for that same product using their stolen credit card number, and have it shipped directly to the (possibly oblivious) bargain-hunter. When the scammer’s customer pays up (via money transfer), they’ve effectively laundered money for the criminal, and may be none-the-wiser until they get a knock on the door from the police (or, if they’re really unlucky, a disgruntled customer service officer from the online retailer.)


Depending on the circumstances, all this sort of stuff can potentially get you thrown in gaol – and as the online retail sector grows, police may decide to start pursuing those involved more vigorously. Take it from a private detective: it’s not cool to be a mule.