(Hypothetical) -- Whilst travelling on public transport you are approached by a stranger, who says "Hi, I'm having trouble getting my cheque cashed, would you cash it for me and give me the money... I'll give you 10% for your trouble." Sound good?
In the scenario above, you would probably do one of two things; Run away or call a cop. Either way, you would not be taken in by such a scheme, would you!
Surprisingly, this kind of thing happens on a regular basis within the public super highway we know as the internet. Even more surprising is the fact that many people actually fall for this trick.
Payment Cashing Schemes
The underlying scheme comes in a few guises, such as the Overpayment Scam, Mystery Shopper Scam or the subject of this article, the Money Mule. Bear in mind that each of these scams is essentially the same. You are cashing a payment, and sending a portion of the cleared funds somewhere else.
This scheme has other names too which you may have heard before; "Bank Fraud" and "Money Laundering". Do we have your attention now? Read on.
The Money Mule Scam
The Money Mule Scam is a form of bank fraud that places an unwitting accomplice in the middle of the flow of money. The idea is to use the Mule (that's the accomplice), as a conduit to make dirty money (traceable) into clean money (untraceable). Hence the phrase 'Money Laundering' (wikipedia link).
There are two distinct sub-type of Money Mule scam. The first is the fraudulent cheque type and the second is the exposed bank account type. In the case of cheques, these would arrive in the postal mail with instructions to deposit into your account. The other type would have acquired banking coordinates from the Mule, and the criminal would funnel illicit funds or a fraudulent cheque into the account.
Recruiting The Money Mule
Depending on which fraudster demographic hits you will depend on how you might be recruited as a Money Mule. Two distinct geographical regions seem to be most prevalent in this particular game; Eastern Europe and West Africa.
The Eastern European recruiter is more likely to make an approach through the use of online job websites. They can advertise quite openly on most of these and will usually have a very nice looking website to back up their business persona.
West African style recruiters are quite unsubtle, and use offers sent generally via email spam. On occasion, one will have their own website, but generally these are quite inferior to their Eastern European cousins.
There is another demographic to mention here; China. The Chinese demographic works along the same lines as the West African type, and probably fronted by West Africans, not Chinese nationals. (I cannot find a citation to back this theory up, so maybe I'll update this part at a later date).
In addition to the above, you will find many cells of fraudsters within each continent, and certainly within the vast majority of countries. So just because the offer does not mention Eastern Europe, Africa or China, does not make the solicitation any less fraudulent.
The premise of the recruitment however is quite the same for each demographic, and at some point in the sometimes lengthy communications there will be an explanation of what you must do.
The text above can be written in many different ways, but it will always translate to the following:-We are looking for a representative in the [country(s)] who will be working for the company as a Representative/Bookkeeper and we'll be willing to pay 10% for every transaction ...
... all you need do is cash the [payment type], deduct your percentage and wire the rest back.
For those that don't see this as a scam right off the bat, you have just entered the job position of Money Launderer, Thief and Bank Fraudster!You will cash a payment, take a cut and forward the balance somewhere else.
Print Your Own Cheque
A further twist to the paper payment style of Money Mule, are those that require the Mule to actually print the cheque themselves. This might not be as silly as it sounds, as countries such as the USA and UK will accept cheques written on non-standard forms.
The fraudster may provide a good quality image of the cheque to be printed, or tell you to go and buy a particular stock from a supplier.
It should be pointed out that this route is also one step away from being recruitment into a cooperative with the fraudster. This will see the Mule turn into someone who actively prints and sends out the cheques to addresses across their country.
There are two very good example solicitations in the posts that follow this one which show requirements of printing and mailing cheques:-
A Mule Of A Fraud
So, what is the fraud in this scheme?
Remember that there could be real money being transferred, probably by the Eastern European type of Mule recruiter. In this case it is quite simple, you are taking illicit funds into your bank account and extracting cash. You then transfer that money via anonymous means such as Western Union. It will be highly likely that you would face jail time as a Money Launderer when the hammer finally falls on your head.
For funds that come from the use of a fraudulent cheque, things are very much the same as in the above case. The only real differece here is that the funds themselves do not typically exist in the first place. The cheques are usually counterfeit or fake, but sometimes stolen genuine cheques do get used. Acting as the conduit for this scam will brand you a bank fraudster and thief.
In both cases, once the bank realise that a fraud has occurred, your bank account would be frozen, you would be reported to the police for fraud, and typically all the funds previously deposited would be taken back by the bank.
Hang on, just a minute... "the bank take back the previously deposited funds.". What happens if you had withdrawn the balance and sent it onwards via Western Union?
The final part of this nasty scam is the one that ruins people. The bank will never be out of pocket, and you are the guilty party, despite being a victim. The chances of you being arrested, prosecuted and jailed are very high, but you would still have a huge debt to pay back to the bank. Maybe they just take your house and call it quits. :shocked:
In the USA, a typical target for the Money Mule Scam, there is yet another angle to consider. What if by chance the Mule had recieved a real cheque which points to a real account with genuine money, and said money was taken from the target account to be added to the Mule's? Apart from criminal laws to be applied to the Mule, there could also be civil laws too. In this case the Mule could find themselves facing a Civil Suit raised by the owner of the targetted bank account. (see wikipedia: conversion (law))
No matter who asks, no matter what the reasons, no matter how lucrative and easy it may sound; Caching a cheque, taking a cut, and moving the balance somewhere else is a 100% guaranteed fraud.
Getting caught in this web of lies will only leave you worse off than when you started, and in many cases, behind bars.
The message is clear...
Don't be a Donkey / Mule.
References and Further Reading