FBI warns of 'money mule' schemes exploiting COVID-19 pandemic

It starts off as a harmless enough request, but it could land you in prison and ruin you financially.
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By Michael Kosnar

The FBI is out with a new warning that criminals may try to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic through a tempting scheme.

It starts off as a harmless enough request. You receive an email, maybe through an online job site or a dating website. Provide your bank account information and allow money transfers to flow through your account. You move the money for someone, who pays you a little cash for your trouble or lures you with the potential of a romantic relationship.

Sounds easy, even profitable, right?

Wrong. Acting as a so-called money mule may land you in prison and ruin you financially.

The FBI says scam artists are taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak to launder ill-gotten gains by accessing your personal and financial information and then using you to move the money for them.

Agents say criminals persuade other people, the money mules, to move illicit money for them often through fund transfers or even the physical movement of cash.

Some of the money comes from internet scams, while other sources include drug trafficking, human trafficking and other illegal business schemes.

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"It's not easy for criminals to move their ill-gotten money around without attracting the attention of law enforcement, so they actively recruit other people to be money mules," said Steven Merrill, head of the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section. "Money mules allow criminals to mask their identities, move money across country lines and avoid arousing the suspicions of financial institutions."

And acting as a money mule, allowing others to use your bank account or conducting financial transactions on behalf of others, is a crime whether or not you realize what you're doing is illegal.

On top of the potential crime, participating in a money mule scheme compromises your personal information, as well as your financial details. The FBI advises that unless you are personally or professionally involved in a money transaction, you should refuse to send or receive money on behalf of others.

Several years ago, the FBI surveyed more than 300 people who had been conned into transferring money for criminals, looking for a common thread among the victims. What they found was that work-from-home schemes, along with dating sites, were behind many of the cases but that the victims themselves spanned every race, gender and age demographic. In other words, nobody was immune from being targeted.

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"To recruit money mules, criminals will prey on people's sympathies and natural desire to help someone they perceive as being in need," Merrill said. "The tragic thing about a lot of money mules is they're normal, law-abiding people who have been tricked into doing something illegal. That's why it's important for the public to recognize the warning signs."

Agents say that as unemployment figures continue to soar, with 16 million Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment insurance in the last three weeks, the work-from-home schemes continue to proliferate, often asking you to open a bank account or to use your own account to transfer funds in return for some of the money.

But the coronavirus pandemic adds a new dimension to the plot, and the FBI is warning of the following scenarios, which many times begin when people who claim to be overseas contact you by email, text or telephone:

  • People claiming to be U.S. service members stationed overseas who ask you to send or receive money on behalf of themselves or a loved one battling COVID-19.
  • People claiming to be U.S. citizens working abroad who ask you to send or receive money on behalf of themselves or a loved one battling COVID-19.
  • People claiming to be U.S. citizens quarantined abroad who ask you to send or receive money on behalf of themselves or a loved one battling COVID-19.
  • People claiming to be in the medical equipment business who ask you to send or receive money on their behalf.
  • People claiming to be affiliated with charitable organizations who ask you to send or receive money on their behalf.

The FBI is alerting the public to steer clear of any requests from strangers to act as a money mule and says that if you are contacted, get in touch with your local FBI office.