FBI Promises Action Against Money Mules

The FBI’s top anti-cyber crime official today said the agency is planning a law enforcement action against so-called “money mules,” individuals willingly or unwittingly roped into helping organized computer crooks launder money stolen through online banking fraud.

Patrick Carney, acting chief of the FBI’s cyber criminal section, said mules are an integral component of an international crime wave that is costing U.S. banks and companies hundreds of millions of dollars. He said the agency hopes the enforcement action will help spread awareness that money mules are helping to perpetrate crimes.

“We want to make sure that public understands this is illegal activity and one of the best ways we can think of to give that message is to have some prosecutions,” Carney said at a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) symposium in Arlington, Va. today on combating commercial payments fraud. “We realize it’s not going to make the problem go away, but it should help raise awareness and send a signal.”

Money mules typically are first contacted by e-mail, usually with a greeting that claims the prospective employer found the recipient’s resume on Careerbuilder.com, Monster.com, or some other job search site. The fraudsters usually represent themselves as international finance or tax companies that are looking to hire “financial agents” to help customers move their money abroad speedily. Candidates often are told the position is a work-at-home job, that no experience is necessary, and that they need only have access to a computer with an Internet connection.

The mule recruitment process can be very convincing: Some scammers go through the trouble of conducting phone interviews, following those up with a barrage of online questionnaires. At some point in the recruitment process, however, the fictitious company will require the recruit to hand over their bank account numbers, so that the erstwhile employer can deposit their clients’ funds. The employees eventually receive checks, wire transfers or automated clearing house (ACH) payments, and are asked to pull the money out of their bank in cash and wire the money overseas through establishments like Western Union and Moneygram. The typical “commission” for each transfer (most money mules get a single transfer before they’re fired) is about 8 percent, minus the fees for wiring the money.

I have interviewed more than 150 money mules in the course of my investigations over the last year into this type of fraud. I can safely say that most mules fit into one of two camps: Those that are simply not the sharpest crayons in the box and really did get bamboozled (at least up to a point); and those who are out of a job, laid off, or otherwise in need of money and simply aren’t asking themselves or anyone else too many questions about the whole process.

I find most mules fit into the latter group, and you can usually tell because these individuals often will admit to having set up a new account for the job – separate from where they keep their meager savings or checking. When pressed as to why they did this, if they’re honest most will say they weren’t sure about the whole arrangement and wanted to protect their investments just in case their employers turned out to be less-than-honest.

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