Dr Deepthi Ratnayake MBCS explains money mules and their role in cyber crime.

What is a money mule? A money mule is a person who transfers stolen money on behalf of others.

When criminals want to conceal the unlawful origins of their revenues such as cyber crime, drug dealing, sexual exploitation, fraud, scams, human trafficking and even terrorism, they will recruit a person - often unwittingly - to clean ‘dirty money’ in return for ‘easy money’.

Money mules can move funds in various ways, including through bank accounts, cashier’s checks, virtual currency, prepaid debit cards, or money service businesses (FBI).

Social and ethical impact

The negative effects of money muling can create severe global and local impacts, as it makes crime worthwhile whilst weakening the social fabric and collective ethical standards. An urgent, coordinated increased eff ort from government, other sectors and society at large is vital to eradicate this issue.

Research shows that typical victims are those with socioeconomic circumstances which mean they either do not understand their role in the illegal activity, or are willingly turning a blind eye to it.

Cifas.org.uk states that two thirds of the UK population now use social media to communicate with each other. Scammers target older age groups through ‘get rich quick’ schemes via social media advertising that appears legitimate. A quarter of 18-34 year-olds think that money muling is a reasonable behaviour, which reflects on the nearly 80% increase in under 30s taking part in money muling activity.

Awareness prevents crime

The public is warned about behaviours that put them at risk of becoming a money mule, such as responding to job adverts, or social media posts that promise large amounts of money for very little work; failing to research a potential employer, particularly one based overseas before handing over personal or financial details to them; and allowing an employer or other unknown parties to use a personal bank account to transfer money.

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The general advice is to stop communication with criminal(s) and transferring money or any other items of value immediately; maintain any receipts, contact information and relevant communication (emails, chats, text messages, etc.); and notify the bank and the service used to conduct the transaction, as well as law enforcement.

Prosecution and incarceration

Money mule crime prevention and detection under anti-money laundering laws is a globally coordinated mission. The #DontBeAMule campaign is headed by Europol. Similar programmes are run by the FBI and other crime prevention institutions.

The Don’t Be Fooled partnership between UK Finance and cifas.org.uk campaigns to inform students and young people about the risks of giving out their bank details and to deter them from becoming money mules.

Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting centre for the public can be reached (on 0300 123 2040) to report fraud if scammed, defrauded, or experienced as cybercrime in the UK. If caught in the UK, a money mule’s bank account will be closed; they will find it hard to access further loans or apply for credit - and they could go to prison for up to 14 years.

What can we do?

Educating citizens and/or punishing victims have been the most popular methods of money mule crime prevention.

Many suggest being hard on money transmitters, not on banks and controlling crime on a country’s own shores rather than blaming other countries. Countries worldwide have tightened regulatory measures and financial institutions maintain manual / automated / intelligent profile monitoring and payment screening.

Recent research* (below) offers valuable insights into current research trends in money mule crime prevention and detection. However, crime statistics prove that existing prevention and detection mechanisms are not as efficient; there is still a considerable research gap to be filled in this area.

* Villányi (2021). Money laundering: history, regulations, and techniques; Rani et al. (2022). The money mule red flags in anti-money laundering transaction monitoring investigation; Leukfeldt (2019). Cybercrime, money mules and situational crime prevention; Hulse et al. (2017) The money mule: its discursive construction and the implications.