BALTIMORE, MD—The FBI Baltimore Field Office is warning potential victims of a rise in money mule schemes.
A money mule is a person who transfers illegally obtained money between different payment accounts—often in different countries—on behalf of others. This year, the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID) believes the general public is more susceptible to falling for money mule schemes because of an increase in opportunities for recruitment due to the surge in unemployment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
From 2015 to 2019 reports of fraud to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) have more than tripled, going from $1.1 billion to $3.5 billion. Much of this reported fraud has been enabled by money mules. Despite being the 19th most populous state, last year Maryland was ranked fifth in the country for the number of money mules–behind only California, Texas, Florida, and New York.
As these numbers increase, 2020 is offering a new set of challenges including fraudsters preying on those looking to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. As many companies are being forced to lay off workers or shut down completely during the pandemic, more “work from home” job opportunities are being advertised, even on reputable job sites.
Once “hired” for these jobs, you may first be asked to perform a few easy COVID-19 related tasks, such as researching the current price of various hand sanitizers. Eventually, the employer may ask you to accept a “donation” of funds into your own bank account or to open a new bank account in the name of a company to accept a deposit of funds. You are then asked to withdraw the funds in cash and deposit them into a Bitcoin ATM or “kiosk.” The so-called “donation” is money that has been stolen from others. Mules may also be asked to wire the deposited funds to another bank account or even to use the funds to purchase gift cards or other transferrable assets. Your acceptance and transfer of the stolen money could be considered a violation of federal money laundering statutes, especially if the activity is prolonged or you keep any of the funds for yourself. Even if you do not personally profit, this illegal money mule activity could open you to criminal prosecution while the scammer gains access to the funds without being directly connected to the initial fraud.
Acting as a money mule—allowing others to use your bank account, or conducting financial transactions on behalf of others, jeopardizes your financial security and compromises your personally identifiable information. Protect yourself by refusing to send or receive money on behalf of individuals and businesses for which you are not personally and professionally responsible.
Signs You May Be Acting as a Money Mule
- You receive an unsolicited e-mail or contact over social media promising easy money for little to no effort.
- The “employer” you communicate with uses web-based e-mail (such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or Outlook).
- You are asked to open a bank account in your own name, or in the name of a company you form, to receive and transfer money.
- As an employee, you are asked to receive funds in your bank account and then “process funds” or “transfer funds” via a wire transfer, ACH, mail, or money service business (such as Western Union or MoneyGram).
- You are allowed to keep a portion of the money you transfer.
- Your duties have no specific job description.
- Your online companion, whom you have never met in person, asks you to conduct financial transactions that they should reasonably be able to do for themselves and offers to share the proceeds of that transaction with you.
- Your online companion is adamant that you keep the relationship and the associated financial transactions secret.
How to Protect Yourself
- Do not accept any job offers that ask you to use your own bank account to transfer their money. A legitimate company will not ask you to do this.
- Be wary when an employer asks you to form a company to open a new bank account.
- Never give your financial details to someone you don’t know and trust, especially if you met them online.
- Be wary when job advertisements are poorly written with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.
- Be suspicious when the individual you met on a dating website wants to use your bank account for receiving and forwarding money.
- Perform online searches to check the information from any solicitation e-mails and contacts.
- Ask the employer, “Can you send a copy of the license/permit to conduct business in my county or state?”
- Use the privacy settings on your social media and be selective about the information you make public.
- If you are unsure whether or not you are being used as a money mule and you are uncomfortable talking to law enforcement, consult with your local bank branch.
How to Respond
- If you have received solicitations of this type, do not respond to them and do not click on any links they contain. Inform your local police or the FBI.
- If you believe that you are participating in a money mule scheme, stop transferring money immediately and notify your bank, the service you used to conduct the transaction, and law enforcement.
If you believe you, or someone you know, has been solicited to be a money mule, please contact the FBI Baltimore Field Office at (410) 265-8080. To report suspicious activity, please visit the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.
Learn more about money mules and help raise awareness by sharing the facts through #DontBeAMule.