Money mule scam victims could face jail time: Internet Scambusters #1,067
Thousands of money mules - people who play a "middleman" role in handling scammers' cash - are being caught by law enforcement officers every few weeks.
But in some cases, these individuals are entirely unaware of their role, which starts out as a supposed online romance. But it could still land them in hot water.
In this week's issue, we'll tell you how the scam works, and the five steps online daters can take to avoid being tricked.
Let's get started…
Online Romancers Tricked Into Becoming Money Mules
Scammers are tricking lonely hearts, mostly older or vulnerable romance-seekers, to act as money mules, laundering their stolen money.
Cops call them "fraud facilitators," people who, sometimes unwittingly, play a key role in handling the proceeds of crime on behalf of crooks.
In a conventional romance scam, fraudsters usually ask their victim to send them money for bogus travel or business ventures.
But in a nasty twist, the scammers actually send stolen money to their supposed cyber sweetheart or they get other victims to send it to them, to pass on, usually to overseas locations or untraceable accounts.
The romance money mule scam starts in the usual way. An online Romeo spends weeks or months developing a sham relationship with their victim, gradually building their trust until they're ready to be manipulated. Then they invent a story that results in the crook or another scam victim sending money to them to be forwarded elsewhere.
To make it sound plausible, they may claim the money is to be used as an investment or to pay for legal costs.
Sometimes, they want it to be converted to gift cards and for the mule to pass back to them the numbers on the cards. Or they may ask for it to be used to buy untraceable crypto currency. Other times, they send a check, often a dud, then ask for part of the money to be forwarded or returned to them.
They may ask the victim to open special bank accounts and pass back the account numbers and other details to them so they can get their hands directly on the money.
Furthermore, by disclosing account details and other confidential information to the scammers, victims leave themselves open to identity theft.
Sometimes, the crooks arrange for expensive equipment, bought with stolen credit cards, to be sent to their victim, who is then asked to re-sell or pawn them, again passing on the proceeds.
In a case study reported by the FBI, an 81-year-old woman was tricked into believing she'd met the love of her life online. He claimed to be working abroad and told her she'd be receiving costly electronics to resell.
"When I couldn't get the money he wanted, he asked me to open personal and business bank accounts," she explained in a video.
"I did as he asked, and he started sending me checks or having money deposited into the bank accounts."
All of this is bad enough. But if the crime is discovered by law enforcement, the mule could end up being regarded as an accomplice and charged with fraud, money laundering, or abetting criminal activity.
As a result, their assets could be seized, and they could face imprisonment. Plus, it's likely that their own finances, credit scores, and records could also be affected.
In her FBI video, the 81-year-old further explains: "Since 2015, bank employees, local police officers, and federal agents told me that my love was a scam and that I needed to stop or I could go to jail.
"I didn't listen to anyone else but my love -- the love I've never seen nor spoken to. Now, I don't have a choice of whom I'll listen to. On November 2, 2021, I pleaded guilty to two federal felonies.
"I'll be listening to the judge now."
Don't Get Tricked
If you think this sort of thing wouldn't happen to you, note that in just one 10-week period, the US Department of Justice reported law enforcement action against almost 5,000 money mules across the nation.
Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta declared: "Without money mules, many foreign fraudsters targeting American consumers, businesses, and pandemic relief funds could not reap the proceeds of their schemes."
Many of the actions consumers can take to safeguard against the romance money mule tricksters are the same as for other online dating scams. We've covered these in several previous issues - for example, issues #852, How Romance Scammers Convince Their Victims, and #597, Millions Lost in Latest Romance Scams.
They boil down to 5 rules:
- At the earliest possible stage, try to verify the identity of a person with whom you think you're developing a romantic relationship.
- Be skeptical, especially if the person is stunningly good-looking and/or claims to be a high-earner, or if they demand secrecy because of some supposed confidentiality issue.
- Do a reverse image search on their photo to establish if it's been stolen from another person. See Is It Genuine? Check That Photo with Reverse Image Search for information on how to do this.
- Never send to or agree to receive money from someone you haven't met. If you're asked to use untraceable methods like gift cards, electronic cash wiring services, or cybercurrency, it's almost certainly a scam.
- Never disclose your personal financial details or other confidential information to a person you've never met or whose identity you haven't verified.
A scammer may try to pressure victims to act quickly (and therefore without thinking things through carefully) by acting upset or offended when they try to slow things down. They may say for instance that the supposed deal they want you to help with will fall through unless you meet a transfer deadline.
If you know someone who is actively pursuing an online romance, do them a favor by sending them a copy of this newsletter or its web link. Forewarned is forearmed.
This Week's Alerts
Covid, again: The recent official ending of the Covid pandemic has sparked a rash of new scams, including messages telling Medicare and Medicaid recipients they have to reapply for program membership or telling others they must complete a survey that results in downloading malware. Neither of these claims are true.
Cyber phishing: Two new cybercurrency-related scams have been launched in recent weeks. Both are phishing attempts to gain access to accounts and confidential information. The first pretends to be from crypto wallet company MetaMask warning that a user's wallet has been locked and urging them to update their account or risk losing all their cyber-money. The second impersonates PayPal, saying that currency trader Binance has cancelled a supposed payment from the victim. The aim is to lure users into clicking links to a bogus sign-on page or to call a specific number where account details will be harvested.
As always, check any such alerts by going directly to these firms' websites.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!