UK

‘Generation Covid’ are being recruited as ‘money mules’

Desperate young adults left jobless and penniless by the pandemic are being recruited by criminals as ‘money mules’, it is claimed.

Normally law abiding people are being drawn into a life of crime to help launder the profits of illegal activity, including drug dealing, according to the banking body UK Finance and fraud prevention experts, Cifas.

More than 17,000 suspected money mule cases involving 21 to 30 year olds, who are part of Generation Covid, were recorded in 2020, marking a 5 per cent increase on the previous year.

A social media post which is suspected of being linked to money mule recruitment and activity

Normally law abiding people are being drawn into a life of crime to help launder profits

Normally law abiding people are being drawn into a life of crime to help launder profits

Images showing luxury lifestyles involving cars or cash could be a warning sign

Images showing luxury lifestyles involving cars or cash could be a warning sign

Criminals are exploiting people's financial difficulties using social media platforms

Criminals are exploiting people’s financial difficulties using social media platforms

Criminals may create profiles on social media platforms to seek out suitable targets

Criminals may create profiles on social media platforms to seek out suitable targets

By contrast, there was a fall in younger people being recruited, partly because teenagers have effectively been forced to remain at home with their parents during lockdown.

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’.

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.

Desperate young adults left jobless and penniless are being recruited by criminals

Desperate young adults left jobless and penniless are being recruited by criminals

Criminals are using jobs websites and phishing emails to approach with offers of 'easy cash'

Criminals are using jobs websites and phishing emails to approach with offers of ‘easy cash’

Mules may also be asked to buy cryptocurrencies or gift cards to make it harder for tracing

Mules may also be asked to buy cryptocurrencies or gift cards to make it harder for tracing

Cash laundered by money mules is used by criminals to facilitate serious crimes

Cash laundered by money mules is used by criminals to facilitate serious crimes

Increasingly, money mule recruiters are making use of heavily encrypted instant messaging services to avoid detection.

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. 

Cifas figures show the number of cases bearing the hallmarks of money muling, by age group

Cifas figures show the number of cases bearing the hallmarks of money muling, by age group

Cases bearing hallmarks of money muling broken down by age group (Cifas data)
Age 2017 2019 2020
<21 8,475 10,030 8,791
21 – 30 12,149 16,365 17,157
31-40 6,571 9,248 8,349
41-50 2,948 4,681 3,917
51-60 1,242 2,050 1,708
61+ 412 536 431
SUM 31,797 42,900 40,353

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.

TSB reveals the scams causing biggest total losses during pandemic

Impersonation scams account for the bulk of losses that victims have been reporting during the coronavirus crisis, according to a bank’s analysis of its customer data.

TSB said its internal data from February 2020 to March 2021 shows impersonation scams recorded the biggest proportion of total losses (43 per cent), followed by ‘safe account’ scams (30 per cent) and purchase fraud (11 per cent).

The bank has its own fraud refund guarantee to protect customers who become innocent victims of scams.

TSB said it has refunded 99 per cent of all fraud cases, ranging from a 16-year-old to a 97-year-old victim, with an average loss of £2,360 per case.

Impersonation scams may involve targeting people working from home during the pandemic. Fraudsters may pose as energy suppliers or TV streaming services, for example. They may sometimes use information harvested from data breaches or social media to make themselves appear legitimate. Average losses for such scams are £4,084, TSB said.

The bank has also seen an upswing in romance frauds as people seek companionship during lockdowns. Fraudsters will use dating websites to impersonate other people and fabricate ‘sob stories’ for why they urgently need cash. Victims are typically aged 50 to 70 years old, TSB said.

Safe account scams typically involve criminals posing as a bank’s fraud department and claiming the victim’s account is ‘under attack’ and money needs to be transferred. In reality, the money goes into the scammer’s bank account. 

UK Finance and Cifas warned that people drawn into money laundering can end up with a criminal record, blighting chances of getting legitimate work. They could also have difficulty opening a bank account, getting credit or even opening a mobile phone contract.

People aged 21 to 30 accounted for 42 per cent of money mule activity in 2020, up from 38 per cent three years ago.

The two organisations 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.

Managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, Katy Worobec, (correct) 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.’ 


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