DONT be a money mule and let crooks use your bank account to launder cash 

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As thousands are lured into being money mules, DONT let crooks use your bank account to launder cash

More than 150 people a week are being lured into a ‘money mule’ scam epidemic that leaves them facing prison and unable to use a bank account for up to six years.

Students and middle-aged workers in need of cash are among the most sought-after targets for crooks, who dupe them into accepting deposits into their bank accounts and then instruct them to forward the cash to another account as a way of laundering ‘dirty’ money.

The ‘mules’ are typically given small cash sums in exchange for doing this. They are recruited in person on university campus or via dodgy job adverts online claiming that good money can be made for a little easy work from home. 

Carrying cash: The ‘mules’ are typically given small cash sums in exchange for accepting deposits into their bank accounts and forwarding them on

Carrying cash: The ‘mules’ are typically given small cash sums in exchange for accepting deposits into their bank accounts and forwarding them on

Experts say people between the ages of 40 and 60 are increasingly being targeted because crooks believe this age group is less likely to attract attention as ‘mules’ after years of running clean bank accounts.

Today, The Mail on Sunday lays bare the breathtaking scale of the fraud, the tricks being used to lure people into acting as money mules – and the devastating consequences of falling for these scams.

As well as your bank accounts being frozen for up to six years, your career and credit record can be ruined, leaving you dependent on friends or family for a cash lifeline. 

No mobile phone contracts will be granted to a mule, who will also struggle to obtain credit cards or a mortgage in future. In the worst cases mules face a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

The latest figures from fraud prevention service Cifas show there were 40,139 money mule accounts in 2018, a 26 per cent rise compared with the year before.

That indicates that more than 150 additional accounts a week are being used for the money laundering scheme. It is not known how many of the account-holders are aware that they are engaging in criminal activity.

But with university costs spiralling, the temptation can be huge for students to fall for a crook’s offer of easy money. And many view it wrongly as a victimless crime – unaware of the sinister source of the cash.

Money laundering throughout the UK’s financial system is now estimated to be in excess of £90 billion a year – some of which is used to fund serious crimes like terrorism and people trafficking.

This month, reality struck for three university students in their 20s who all received prison terms of between ten and 16 months for their roles as money mules.

Money laundering throughout the UK’s financial system is now estimated to be in excess of £90 billion a year – some of which is used to fund serious crimes like terrorism and trafficking (Stock image)

Money laundering throughout the UK’s financial system is now estimated to be in excess of £90 billion a year – some of which is used to fund serious crimes like terrorism and trafficking (Stock image)

The presiding judge in the case, heard in Carlisle, referred to money mule fraud as an ‘epidemic’.

Bilal Afzal, Mohammad Khan and Nikhil Reedye were encouraged to offer up their bank accounts as a home for deposits sent by the fraudsters, in return for modest cash sums. But it emerged in court that their accounts were used to hide £64,500 defrauded from a woman in her 80s. This included £30,000 of insurance money received after her home was flooded.

Two conmen – who have not been caught – posed as employees from the woman’s bank over the phone and used the excuse of a security compromise on her account to persuade her to transfer savings into a ‘safe account’.

The conmen quickly sent the money to the students’ accounts, who were expected to either forward the sums on to another account or convert the money into a foreign currency.

One of the mules, fourth-year medical undergraduate Bilal Afzal, was sentenced to ten months in jail – leaving his dreams of becoming a doctor in tatters.

Bilal Mohammed Afzal, a medical student from Bolton, was jailed for acting as a 'money mule' for fraudsters who stole £60,000 from an elderly flood victim

Bilal Mohammed Afzal, a medical student from Bolton, was jailed for acting as a ‘money mule’ for fraudsters who stole £60,000 from an elderly flood victim

His defence barrister described him as being ‘traumatised’ upon learning how he aided the fraud and of the impact it had on the victim, who got back just £20,000.

It was reported that the student had never appreciated the seriousness of his actions and his family were said to be ‘horrified’. A change in law two years ago granted the authorities the permission to freeze bank accounts and seize crime funds in cases such as these.

These are known as ‘account freezing orders’.

In February of this year alone, such orders were placed on 95 UK bank accounts holding a combined £3.6 million of suspected illegal funds, according to the National Crime Agency.

But the true masterminds behind the crimes usually escape scot-free, leaving ordinary, unsuspecting people to take the rap.

Pleading ignorance won’t always soften the punishment. And even if they escape the long arm of the law, mules will be punished in other ways that can ruin their financial lives.

HOW THE MULE SCAMS WORK

Crooks advertise quick and cheap loans on social media or post dubious job adverts on recruitment websites, in spam emails, on instant messenger or in newspapers.

Job posts declare opportunities for earning from the comfort of the home, with short hours and no experience necessary – the holy grail of employment for many people.

Unwitting people fall for the trick and ask for a job, only to be told they need to use their own bank accounts for ‘processing payments’. Grateful for the easy work, they agree, dutifully following instructions to move the money deposited, minus their own reward for doing the job, into another specified account.

Those who think they are getting a loan might find they receive more than they asked for.

Crooks advertise quick and cheap loans on social media or post dubious job adverts on recruitment websites, in spam emails, on instant messenger or in newspapers

Crooks advertise quick and cheap loans on social media or post dubious job adverts on recruitment websites, in spam emails, on instant messenger or in newspapers

It is explained by the fraudsters as an ‘administrative error’ and mules are asked to send the overpayment to a different account from the one that originally sent the loan.

Moving this money through different accounts is effectively cleaning the crime money and making it hard for fraud investigators to trace on behalf of original victims.

Fraudsters need money mules with clean records because strict anti-money laundering rules block them from opening their own accounts.

Even schoolchildren need to be vigilant about this crime, with schools as well as universities being fertile hunting ground for criminal gangs.

Earlier this year, a young teenager was sentenced to a 12-month community order for playing mule in a wider £200,000 scam – facilitated in part by a former NatWest bank employee.

But it is not only the young who need to be wary. The steepest rise in mule cases involve people aged between 40 and 60.

This demographic is more likely to be recruited by fake job adverts and are seen as perfect ‘marks’ by fraudsters.

This is because older people with no criminal history are least likely to raise suspicions with banks, especially when large sums of money are being paid in and out.

AN EASY INCOME…THAT RUINS LIVES

ONE man, known only as ‘H’, spoke to The Mail on Sunday about how he became involved. It is rare for money mules to speak out – as many are full of anger and embarrassment at being duped.

Three months ago, the 29-year-old welder from Kent needed to buy furniture for a rented flat he and his partner had just moved into. But he did not have enough cash and needed a loan.

A friend suggested a ‘hashtag’ on social media website Instagram that could help. A hashtag is a catchy phrase preceded by a ‘#’, used as a shorthand by social media users to convey a quick message. Examples of hashtags for fake loan services being used to snare new money mules include #Moneyflipsuk and #RealMoneyTransfers.

When someone clicks on a hashtag, it leads to a web page that could be an advert or story. In H’s case, it led to an individual person’s webpage on Instagram – someone who was happy to provide a quick and cheap loan.

H says: ‘I asked whether I could borrow £3,000. He agreed and said I could pay it back at a rate of £100 a fortnight. He asked for my bank details, which I gave him. But then I saw that he transferred £10,000 to my account rather than £3,000.’

The mysterious lender said the overpayment was a mistake and asked for the excess to be repaid in cash. Though H was wary of this arrangement, he agreed and met the man in an upmarket town in Kent to repay the money. But he gave him back the full £10,000, no longer wanting the agreed loan.

H thought that was the end of it. But little did he know that he had become a ‘mule’ – and a victim of a money launderer.

Worse news was to come. ‘My bank account has now been shut down,’ he told The Mail on Sunday. This means he cannot get his wages paid in by his employer. He is also unlikely to be allowed a new bank account for six years.

Fortunately, H has a friend who agreed to have his wages paid in to his bank account instead – and then give H the cash. H says: ‘It made me feel terrible that I can’t get a bank account. It’s not easy to top up my Oyster travel card and I’m not allowed to set up a mobile phone contract.’

He adds: ‘I didn’t even get the loan I needed – and now I don’t have a bank account either.’

Poacher turned gamekeeper Tony Sales, once described as ‘Britain’s greatest fraudster’, also spoke to The Mail on Sunday about this growing problem.

He started his life of crime as a child and is thought to have made up to £30 million from swindling his victims over decades as a career criminal. A stretch in prison after six years on the run helped reform the ex-fraudster – especially when he realised the impact crime has on children. ‘I realised I wanted to see my five-year-old son grow up,’ he says.

Sales now works with financial companies on how to detect fraud. With Santander bank, he is helping to highlight the latest scams and researched the social media hashtags promising easy loans with street language to entice the young.

Sales says: ‘I have seen 16-year- old kids caught up in these scams simply because they want cash for a new pair of trainers – to keep up with the Joneses.’

Santander’s research also shows the vast majority of people – some 70 per cent – don’t know what a money mule is.

Sales says criminal kingpins are rarely caught, but the low hanging fruit money mules lose out because they are easier to track down.

They end up with no bank account and have to live with being classed as criminals themselves. More details about the fraud can be found at moneymules.co.uk.

TELL-TALE SIGNS: HOW A HASHTAG OR NEW ONLINE FRIEND CAN LEAD YOU TO PRISON

ANY offer of cash or rewards for the use of a bank account. A 15-year-old boy from Leicestershire was recruited outside his school and paid just £50 for the use of his account.

SOCIAL media hashtags promoting easy ways of getting cash, such as #Moneyflipsuk, #legitmoneyflips, #PayPalFlip and #EasyMoney.

JOB offers for ‘money transfer agents’ or ‘local processors’ that promise the chance to work from home, for high sums, little work and with no experience necessary. Mules are later told their accounts are needed to process payments.

A PANICKED request for the refund of a ‘mistaken overpayment’. This could happen to someone who thinks they are getting a loan, or money for an item they are selling online. When an honest person repays the money into a different account, they could effectively be laundering money from crime.

A SOB story from a new online ‘friend’. A lot of effort goes into winning the trust of a victim, who is led to believe that they are dating someone online, but are actually being groomed as a money mule.

The new friend may use a fake picture of an attractive person and make up reasons why they are never free to meet – such as a heroic job that takes them overseas.

Eventually, they ask for financial help in a fake crisis – receiving and transferring money from one account to another.

It all sounds plausible to the victim at the time, but it all points to money laundering.

 

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