If it seems like you're hearing more about financial crime lately, it's because it’s becoming more common. For example, according to reports collected by the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, Canadians lost $380 million to online scammers in 2021. That's more than double the $165 million consumers lost in 2020.1
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From romance scams, vendor fraud and fake job offers to virtual currency deals, easy money offers and fake prizes, scammers are constantly evolving their techniques to make their scams harder to detect — and more effective at separating consumers from their hard-earned dollars.
But even if you're diligent about not sending strangers money and can spot a phishing attempt from a mile away, you could still become an unwitting money mule.
Money Mule schemes aren't necessarily about taking your money; rather, they're designed to get access to your bank accounts or other private information.
Criminals then use your accounts or ask for your help to unsuspectingly commit a financial crime, typically in this case, money laundering.
Here's what you need to know so you'll be better equipped to spot a money mule scheme.
A money mule is a person who moves stolen, or ill-gotten, money from one bank account to another on behalf of someone else. Some money mules deliberate and strategic, such as professional money launders, however others can be unsuspecting and law-abiding people who criminals recruit to move their illicit funds.
Using money mules for transferring funds helps scammers protect their identities and makes it harder for law enforcement to track.
It can be easy to fall into a money mule scheme because the perpetrators know how to make their offers appealing. They might reach out via phone, email, mail or social media. Or they might put up a job ad and wait for you to apply.
Once they connect with you, they'll offer you something in exchange for your personal information. It could be a job or an opportunity to make money just for opening a bank account.
Some money mule schemers will develop a trusting or romantic relationship with you before they ask you to do them the favour of transferring or accepting money for them. Students, homemakers, unemployed persons, seniors and migrant labourers are also frequent targets for money mule recruitment.
There are a number of money mule tactics and they each work slightly differently. Here are some of the most common money mule schemes:
These scams start with a job offer. It may appear to be from a legitimate company you've applied for a job at, or an offer for a well-paying easy or work-from-home job might come out of the blue via an unsolicited email. Eventually, you may be told that you have to open a bank account in your name or the company's name to do the job and deposit money they send.
The perpetrators will then use your account to move illegal funds through a network of accounts before sending it to accounts overseas.
Dating and social scams
In these scams, someone you know through social media or a dating site, who you've already started developing a relationship with, contacts you. Sometimes, it's a person you're in a long-distance romantic relationship with, but other times, you may only know the person from social media.
They'll then ask you for a favour — to receive money and forward it to someone else. You may have to deposit it in a bank account or just forward a package or money transfer you receive.
However, the scam plays out, you're being used to move money gained from criminal activity from one person to another. Sometimes, you'll even be allowed to keep a portion of the money you transfer.
Deposit scams are aptly named. They offer people the opportunity to make a commission or a lump sum simply by opening a bank account and depositing a cheque. You might be hired to take care of a company's finances but asked to deposit cheques in your own account and then withdraw those funds and send them to criminals before they clear. Spoiler alert: It often turns out that these cheques are forged.
These scammers commit financial fraud by using you as an intermediary. In this case, you might end up on the hook for the money and charged with fraud.
What is a money mule account?
A money mule account is the bank account the scammers ask you to open to help facilitate fraud or the movement of money. The criminals may ask for access to this account via online or mobile banking, or they might direct you about how to move the money they send you.
Usually, scammers will ask you to open an account in your own name but sometimes they'll have you create a company and start an account in the company's name.
If you knowingly act as a money mule, you can indeed be prosecuted for financial fraud. Depending on the kind of fraud the scammers have you commit, you could be charged with bank fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering or even identity theft.
While many law enforcement offices understand money mule scams, you can't trust that you'll be believed when you explain that you didn't know you were doing anything illegal. Most money mule schemes sound too good to be true — because they are. If you didn't ask the questions you needed to ensure that what you were doing was legal, then you could be found guilty.
The good news is that there are strategies to help you spot a money mule scam to ensure you don't fall for one:
- If you're offered a job, make sure the company is legitimate. Search online for their website and company information. Check to see that the email addresses you correspond with exactly match the company's domain name and don't have an additional word or a letter missing.
- If a company contacting you with a job offer uses a free web-based email service like Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook or Hotmail, they could be scammers. Most companies have custom email addresses.
- Report anyone asking you to open a bank account or use your personal bank account to transfer company money as part of your new job to local law enforcement. Legitimate companies have their own bank accounts and will never ask you to do that.
- If a company that only employs you asks you to form a new company and open a bank account on their behalf, report them to local law enforcement. This is a warning sign of a money mule scam.
- If a company tells you that you have to receive funds for them in your bank account via direct deposit, mail, wire transfer or other means, don't do it.
- If someone asks you to make a money transfer for them and tells you that you can keep a portion of the funds, don't do it.
- If someone asks you to deposit a cheque and then send them the money before that cheque clears, it's likely part of a money mule scam. Never deposit money on behalf of someone else. Never spend or repay money before a cheque clears.
- Be wary of anyone you meet on a dating site or social media who asks you to help them make financial transactions. Don't help them.
- Never give out your personal financial details, especially to someone you meet online.
Money mule schemes can seem legitimate and even like great employment opportunities. They might also come in the form of requests from people you know virtually who you've come to care about. Scammers tend to offer opportunities that seem too good to be true or develop an emotional relationship with you so they can use your kindness against you.
The important thing to remember about money mule scams is that you can protect yourself. Never open a bank account in your name for someone else, never use your personal account to deposit money on behalf of an individual or a company, and never share your financial information with anyone.
Follow these tips to help you stay safe from people trying to make you into a money mule.