An exciting vacation to Thailand takes a turn in the movie “Brokedown Palace” when Alice, played by Claire Danes, and Darlene, played by Kate Beckinsale, find themselves surrounded by police at the airport—significant amounts of heroin have been found in their luggage.

The popular movie—said to be based on a true story—offered a glimpse (albeit fictional) at the danger of operating as a “drug mule.” The term typically refers to someone who personally transports illegal drugs on behalf of another person, even if they do so without knowing they’re committing a crime.

Money Mules

The same principle is used in other kinds of crimes—people who move illicit funds between bank accounts, currencies, and blockchains to avoid detection on behalf of a criminal enterprise are also mules. According to IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI), these individuals are referred to as money mules—and in many situations, they may not realize they are participating in a criminal scheme. The consequences, however, are the same.

This month, IRS-CI has partnered with other federal agencies in an effort deemed The Money Mule Initiative. Those agencies include the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, Homeland Security Investigations, the Small Business Administration Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

The initiative—now in its sixth year—aims to identify and prosecute facilitators of money mule schemes.

“Fraudsters prey on people’s vulnerabilities – whether that’s the need for friendship or the need for a job – and that can result in devastating financial and legal consequences for a person recruited as a money mule,” said CI Chief Jim Lee. “The best way to protect yourself from falling victim to one of these schemes is to know what to look for and to contact law enforcement if you suspect suspicious activity.”

Money mule networks recruit participants through various means, including social media, employment and dating websites, email spam, online classified ads, and dark web forums. Recruits may be unaware they are part of a larger scheme.

FBI Stories

According to the FBI, unwitting participants may be solicited via an online romance scheme or job offer and asked to use their established personal bank account or open a new account in their actual name to receive money from someone they have never met in person. They may send an unsolicited email or social media message that promises easy money with little to no effort—even being told to keep some money as an incentive.

The FBI conducted over 300 interviews with individuals flagged by financial institutions for activity, indicating they acted as money mules. Participants included a woman who worked in early childhood education who met a man on an online dating site who allegedly worked for a children’s charity. A few weeks later, the man asked her to accept some money for his charity—over the next several weeks, he attempted to wire $250,000 into her account. He then instructed her to wire the money into other bank accounts, obtain cashier’s checks, and mail them to individuals at his direction.

In another situation, a retired advertising executive looking to earn extra money found a “work at home” opportunity online. He was hired and then directed to create a business and open a new bank account for that business. He was told he’d receive a series of deposits and would be instructed where to send the money—he believed the company was facilitating importing and exporting.

Red Flags

Other persons may not completely be unwitting—they may simply ignore obvious red flags. For example, bank employees may have warned them that they were involved with fraudulent activity or opened accounts with multiple banks. A criminal may pretend to be a prospective employer who requires a job candidate to open a bank account to receive and transfer company funds as a condition of employment. Other criminals may strike up an online relationship and then ask their romantic partner to transfer funds on their behalf using money from a services business, wire transfer, or the U.S. Postal Service. In those situations, the victims may have been unwitting at first but continued participation, motivated by financial gain or simply an unwillingness to acknowledge their role.

Still, others may be all in. They may open bank accounts to receive money from various individuals and businesses for criminal purposes and travel to different countries to open financial accounts or register companies. They may also operate funnel accounts to receive fraud proceeds from multiple lower-level money mules or recruit others. They may even advertise their services as a money mule, spelling out what actions they offer and at what prices. In these cases, the motivations are often financial gain or loyalty to a criminal group.

Protect Yourself

You should always take steps to protect yourself. Some examples include performing online searches to check the legitimacy of any company that offers you a job—do not accept any job offers that ask you to use your bank account to transfer money (a legitimate company will not ask you to do this). Use caution if the “employer” you communicate with uses web-based email services (such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Outlook, etc.).

Law enforcement also urges you to be wary if an employer asks you to form a company to open a new bank account or if an individual you met on a dating website wants to use your bank account to receive and forward money. Finally, never give your financial details to someone you don’t know and trust, especially if you met them online.

Acting as a money mule can result in trouble, even if you aren’t aware you’re committing a crime. If you are a money mule, you could be charged as part of a criminal money laundering conspiracy, as well as charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, money laundering, and aggravated identity theft. Even if you aren’t charged criminally, serving as a money mule can damage your credit and financial standing. You also risk having your own personally identifiable information stolen and used by the criminals you are working for, and you may be held personally liable for repaying money lost by victims.

If you or someone you know may be a part of a money mule network, immediately stop communicating with suspected criminals. Do not transfer money or any other valuable items. Maintain receipts, contact information, and evidence of communication, such as emails, chats, and text messages. You’re also advised to notify law enforcement, including your local IRS-CI field office. You can report suspicious activity to www.ic3.gov.

IRS-CI

IRS-CI, the sixth-largest law enforcement agency in the U.S., is the criminal investigative arm of the IRS, responsible for conducting financial crime investigations like tax fraud, narcotics trafficking, money laundering, public corruption, healthcare fraud, and identity theft. While other federal agencies also have investigative jurisdiction for money laundering and some bank secrecy act violations, the IRS is the only federal agency that can investigate potential criminal violations of the tax code.

The agency has 20 field offices located across the U.S. and 12 attaché posts abroad.

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