Give Me a Crash Course In . . . Stu­dent ‘money mules’

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Conor Gal­lagher Crime Cor­re­spon­dent

Stu­dents are be­com­ing money laun­der­ers now? Some of them any­way. Gar­daí be­lieve cy­ber crim­i­nals are in­creas­ingly tar­get­ing stu­dents and ask­ing them to al­low the use of their bank ac­counts for trans­fer­ring their ill-got­ten gains. In­creas­ingly strict anti-money laun­der­ing rules are mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult for crim­i­nals to hide cash in their own ac­counts or through busi­nesses as used to be the prac­tice.

As a re­sult they have started split­ting the money up into smaller con­sign­ments and dis­tribut­ing through the ac­counts of so-called “money mules”– of­ten gullible stu­dents.

Stu­dents are be­ing ap­proached on cam­pus or in bars by “money herders” and of­fered the chance to make a few hun­dred euro in ex­change for al­low­ing money to be trans­ferred through their ac­counts. Many don’t re­alise it’s a crime while oth­ers don’t care. That doesn’t sound so se­ri­ous.

It’s very se­ri­ous. Money laun­der­ing is pun­ish­able by up to 14 years in prison. Al­though a young money mule is un­likely to re­ceive any­thing close to that or even to go to prison for a first of­fence, gar­daí warn that a con­vic­tion can ruin fu­ture em­ploy­ment and travel prospects.

It’s not just stu­dents who are be­ing tar­geted. Other peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly the un­em­ployed, are be­ing lured in with the prom­ise of easy cash. Gar­daí say “Get rich quick” or “earn money at home” ad­ver­tise­ments shared over Face­book, In­sta­gram and on What­sApp are used to re­cruit mules.

Once the money is trans­ferred out of the mules’ ac­counts, it be­comes very dif­fi­cult to trace. Gar­daí say that al­though they don’t think it is be­ing used to fi­nance ter­ror­ism, they have no way of know­ing for sure. Isis is known to have used “money mules” in the past to laun­der cash. Who’s be­hind it?

The money herders are re­cruited by gangs spe­cial­is­ing in on­line fraud in­clud­ing chief fraud (im­per­son­at­ing the head of a busi­ness to con­vince an em­ployee to trans­fer over money), ro­mance fraud (start­ing a re­la­tion­ship with some­one – usu­ally on­line – be­fore con­vinc­ing them to hand over money) and in­voice re­di­rect­ion scams (email­ing a busi­ness pre­tend­ing to be a sup­plier and con­vinc­ing it to change the ac­count it pays in­voices to).

Most of these gangs are based out­side Ire­land as are most of their vic­tims. One gang in par­tic­u­lar has been highly ac­tive in re­cruit­ing Ir­ish mules in re­cent years, and they have been the fo­cus of much of the Garda’s at­ten­tion. Are the Garda hav­ing any suc­cess?

Some. This week mem­bers from the Garda Na­tional Eco­nomic Crime Bureau an­nounced they have iden­ti­fied 420 mule ac­counts be­ing used by one crim­i­nal net­work. They es­ti­mated a to­tal of 165 fraud vic­tims had lost ¤14.6 mil­lion to the net­work in re­cent years. Sev­eral cars have been seized and bank ac­counts con­tain­ing ¤300,000 have also been frozen.

No ar­rests have been made but Det Chief Supt Pat Lor­dan said this was likely to change. “If you come back in six months time we will have a lot of ar­rests,” he said. Is this just an Ir­ish prob­lem?

Not at all. The lat­est Garda op­er­a­tion was part of an in­ter­na­tional st­ing led by Europol known as op­er­a­tion “EMMA 4”. Across 30 coun­tries, 168 peo­ple were ar­rested and 1,504 money mules were iden­ti­fied along with 140 money herders.

Stu­dents are be­ing of­fered the chance to make a few hun­dred euro by al­low­ing money to be trans­ferred through their ac­counts

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