$$ Are You a Money Mule? How to Steer Clear of $$ Mule Scams

Let’s imagine the scene – You come across an offer for your dream job on craigslist, a website you happened-upon, via an email that landed in your inbox, or on Facebook or just about any other social media network that says:

“Mystery shoppers/re-shippers needed! Make lots of $$$$ in the comfort of your home – just by shopping and selling online!”

You’ve been wanting to ditch the rat race for some time now and try something new for a bit. And hey, who doesn’t love shopping, online or otherwise? So you take the bait and send your resume. Wouldn’t you know it, in just a few minutes you have a response from the job poster stating that, of course, you are the perfect applicant and the job is yours if you want it. Whoohoo!

After a bit of correspondence, you have a few, but not many, more details regarding your responsibilities. The job requires little skill and the payout is huge. Understandably, you want to get paid for your work and in order to do that, they will need some banking information. Dutifully, you send your name, address, and bank account number, along with other information that you shouldn’t be giving out, dreaming of watching your account fill up as you get paid to shop ‘n snoop.

Your first assignment? You will be sent a package or sum of money by someone in the company (possessing a distinctly russian accent and an oddly non-corporate email address. Hmmmm…) Your job is to send that package or money off to another person within the company, perhaps in Russia. Or maybe your assignment is to cash some checks you have been sent and then wire the same amount, minus about $100 for you to keep, because they like you so much, from your account back to another company contact to assess the efficiency of companies like Western Union or MoneyGram.

Congrats, chum, you are now a money mule.

Money muling, as it’s referred to in the security world, goes by another, more well known name outside of security circles – money laundering. The incoming checks are fakes and the credit cards used to purchase goods have been stolen and resold on the Dark Web and now you’re an accomplice. What you are actually doing is transferring stolen money or goods from one country to another – you are committing a crime that’s punishable with jail time.

So how did this all begin? Where did you go oh so wrong? Falling prey to such money muling scams usually involves a decent amount of desperation and gullibility. With the falling economy and rising costs of living, (because you know the cost of living never goes down for some reason) money mule scams have been attracting unwitting people who are trusting and needy in some way for years, long before anyone had ever heard of the internet.

In the early day of online money laundering, it was relatively easy to spot such scams. As with a great deal of phishing attempts, the creators used poor grammar and their websites were easily discernible from real ones. But according to the U.K.’s Association for Payment Clearing Services such scams are up 345 percent in the last few years and the perps are only getting better, slicker. Their websites are virtually indistinguishable from legit mystery shopper websites, or websites that help people find work-from-home jobs, and they have learned to brush up on their English. Dave Marcus who directs security research and communications at Mcafee Labs notes “I think they’ve upped their professionalism, It’s kind of analogous to the way spammers have upped their game professionally.”

A report from the FBI states “Work-at-home schemes attract otherwise innocent individuals, causing them to become part of criminal schemes without realizing they are engaging in illegal behavior”. Not only are your actions illegal and very punishable, once you have stopped your engagement with the “company”, they will probably use your information to commit their next identity fraud scam – after all, you gave them your name, address and banking information.

So what can you do to steer clear of such scams?

  • Never apply to shady job posts that come via random emails, lists or social media posts – and if you feel you must apply, check the company out as thoroughly as possible. Go to their website, call them, search for them on Google and do everything you can to make sure they are legit.
  • Look for signs like poor grammar, odd email addresses, promises that seem too good to be true and stay away. Read the ad with a heaping spoonful of salt – Does it promise minimal effort for maximum payout? No experience necessary? These are all good indicators that the job could land you in a lot of hot water.
  • Avoid any job that asks you to send money or goods back and forth from one party to another
  • Never give your bank details away to unknown entities. If any prospective job asks you to pay for any sort of “starter kit”, that’s a sign that the job is not legit.
  • Keep your anti-virus and anti-malware software updated to route out spammed-out job offer emails, which often include dangerous links
  • Be wary of any company that does interviews over IM or email exclusively.
  • If you suspect that your dream job is actually your worst nightmare, fear not, you’ll be fired as soon as you are supposed to get your first paycheck. But if for some reason you haven’t been fired and can’t figure out how to extricate yourself, security guru Brian Krebs has a great post on how to get fired as a mule faster than you can say “My bank’s fraud department flagged this transaction…”

    But then there is the fact that as a money mule, you could face up to ten years in prison… Maybe that rat race isn’t looking so bad after all. It sure beats being a jailed mule.

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