Young adults, whose job prospects have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic, are being targeted online by criminals looking for “money mules” to launder their profits, trade association UK Finance and fraud prevention body Cifas warned.
More than 17,000 suspected money mule cases involving 21 to 30 year olds were recorded in 2020, marking a 5% increase on the previous year, according to figures from Cifas.
The figures also show a marked fall in people aged below 21 being recruited as money mules in 2020, with cases falling by 12% to 8,791.
This could partly be due to teenagers having to stay at home with their parents during the coronavirus lockdowns, giving criminals fewer opportunities to exploit them, UK Finance and Cifas suggested.
The overall number of suspected cases of money mule activity across all age groups fell slightly in 2020 from a peak the previous year, but remained 27% higher than in 2017.
Criminals are exploiting people’s financial difficulties by using social media platforms, jobs websites and phishing emails to approach them with offers of “easy cash”.
They convince people to provide their bank details, before asking them to transfer the funds received to another account and keep some of the cash for themselves – making them a money mule.
Mules may also be asked to buy cryptocurrencies or gift cards to make it harder for the proceeds of crimes to be traced.
Cash laundered by money mules is used by criminals to facilitate serious crimes such as terrorism, drug trafficking and people smuggling.
Often, people are unaware that allowing their bank accounts to be used in this way is a crime which will have long-term consequences when they are caught.
Money muling can lead to a criminal record, difficulty opening a bank account and difficulty getting a mobile phone contract or credit in future.
People aged 21 to 30 accounted for 42% of money mule activity in 2020, up from 38% three years ago.
Language used online such as “money transfer agents” or “local processors” and images showing luxury lifestyles involving cars or cash could be a warning sign.
Criminals may create profiles on social media platforms and infiltrate popular groups or special interest pages to seek out suitable targets.
Increasingly, money mule recruiters are making use of heavily encrypted instant messaging services to avoid detection, those behind the campaign said.
UK Finance and Cifas are calling for fraud and economic crime to be included in the upcoming Online Safety Bill. This would make online platforms responsible for taking down fraudulent content, including social media posts or job adverts used to recruit people as money mules.
Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance said: “Criminals are cruelly preying on ‘Generation Covid’ and those struggling to find work at this difficult time, by using fake job adverts online to recruit people as money mules.
“We would urge everyone to remain cautious about any offers of quick and easy money and remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
“At the same time, online platforms must take swift action to detect and take down content being used to promote money muling activity. Organised criminal gangs use money mules to launder the profits of their devastating crimes, including fraud, drugs smuggling and people trafficking. We all have a duty to stop them.”
Mike Haley, chief executive officer of Cifas, said: “Allowing your bank account to be used to transfer funds is illegal. Although transferring funds doesn’t feel like it’s doing any harm, the money you’re being asked to move often comes from scams and crimes committed against innocent members of the public.
“We’re now seeing more variations of this type of activity including mules being asked to buy cryptocurrencies or gift cards to mask the stolen funds, making it even more difficult for organisations to trace this money and return it to victims.
“Banks now have sophisticated technology to detect mule activity. When mules are caught, they can expect their bank accounts to be closed and face great difficulty in obtaining credit, mobile phones or loans in the future. It is vital that you keep your bank account to yourself and not be fooled into taking part in this illegal activity.”
UK Finance and Cifas urged people to follow the advice of the Don’t Be Fooled campaign, which tells people to only give their bank details to people they know and trust.
Paul Davis, retail fraud prevention director at Lloyds Bank, said fraudsters use fake photos and profiles to lure people in.
He said: “Tempting offers that sound too good to be true probably are, so it’s important people think about the consequences like being left with no bank account, a damaged credit score and even prison – before biting off more than they can chew.”
Lloyds Bank created a “mule hunting” team in 2018, which has since uncovered more than 88,000 mule accounts and stopped £60 million from falling into the hands of fraudsters.
Laith Khalaf, financial analyst, AJ Bell said: “Criminals know full well that there are plenty of young people out of work as a result of the pandemic and they’re trying to use that for their own advantage.
“If you’re approached out of the blue by someone offering you payment to move cash around, you need to be on high alert.”