With scamming on the rise, criminals are always looking for people willing to lend them their bank accounts to receive and withdraw the unlawful cash and these people are called mules or money mules, now you must be thinking "wait, what mule? the animal mule? animals don’t have bank accounts!''
Well yes mules. The term money mule is used for victims who are scammed by fraudsters into laundering illegitimate money through their bank accounts. Sometimes they are not scammed, but willingly help the criminals. But why do these people let criminals use their accounts for laundering money when it can cause them serious trouble? Let’s find out.
Criminals don’t want to be traced back to their crimes, so they use money mules to help disguise the source of their illegal funds. How do they find their mules? Besides the traditional ways of laundering money, criminals are finding social media as fertile field to recruit willing and unwitting assistants. The criminal creates a short video of a stash of cash and posts it on a social media platform with the caption "Easy Money" or "Who wants to make money." Someone replies, the criminal asks for the mule's personal information - full name, date of birth, address, phone number, a picture of their ID and in next few days the mule collects the money and puts it through the bank account or as crypto. The money gets laundered, and the mule gets its percentage from it.
Money laundering and fraud schemes are rampant across many social media platforms. For example, take Twitch -an online interactive streaming platform, where you can create content for your audience and in return people can donate money to the streamers using Twitch-Bit, a type of virtual money. Twitch-Bits can also be purchased with traditional money. The ease of use of this payment gateway makes it a soft target for money laundering.
This is also the case with other social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and others. The lack of user awareness and the goal of some users to become the next top model or the next social media influencer, means that people are getting duped into money laundering. The next time you want to influence or go viral make sure it’s for all the right reasons and not for laundering dirty money.
It gets easier for criminals to lure people to social media apps or platforms because a major percentage of the users of these platforms are teenagers or young adults. These users are more vulnerable to "the easy, fast money" traps, and according to Sky News, people under 25 are more likely to fall victim to these traps than those over 50.
Social media is just one way to recruit or use mules for money laundering; online gaming has become a new favorite place for criminals to find “help.” With the rise in popularity of online gaming and limited regulation of the space, criminals are using this to their advantage. How does this work? A criminal may download a free online game on their device and convert their illicit money to in-game currency, then channel this currency into the game by buying weapons or power up their gaming character through micro transactions. Then they sell these characters for in-game virtual currency on secondary markets like eBay, player auctions and many more. These are micro transactions, that are difficult to identify which are legal and which are not. The lack of regulation of this space makes it easier for criminals to operating on gaming portals.
Some lazy criminals don’t want to go out on the streets, sell drugs standing at a road intersection, get paid, come back home and then launder the money. They prefer to sit on their couch, open their laptop, go to the dark web, and steal credit card details. The dark web is a shadow area of the Internet which you can’t access using your standard search engines. The dark web employs specific URLs which are very difficult to trace. Now back to our lazy criminals, they get information on the dark web, create accounts on gaming portals, purchase loot boxes or in-game virtual currency (called, V-Bucks) and then sell them to other players at a discount, creating multiple layers of transactions. Sometimes criminals create different fake gaming accounts and trade or transfer V-Bucks and loot boxes between these accounts, again creating a complex web of transactions. A few years ago, several popular games including Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Fortnite were taken by this money laundering technique. Some gaming companies are acting and implementing rules, including proper ID verification; it is possible to counter this situation. Hopefully a little awareness goes a long way.