Money mules are quite literally the workhorses of the online fraud world. The term “money mule” is borrowed from the nomenclature used to describe the human pack horses of the drug cartels — so-called “drug mules” — people who physically carry illegal substances on their person while crossing the U.S. border. Some drug mules actually ingest large numbers of tiny bags full of illegal substances, and carry the narcotics in their digestive system on the way into the United States. You can probably guess how the drugs are…er…offloaded by these mules.
Of course, money mules don’t actually ingest the cash they help steal from banks and small businesses that are victimized by criminal gangs, although they do occasionally eat the cost when their bank turns around and holds them liable for the missing money. However, some of the mules — mainly young Eastern European men and women of college age who are here in the United States on temporary J1 visas — do physically carry the cash on their person when they head back home.
Anyway, this blog posts focuses on the former group, those willing or unwitting individuals who stand to very likely make $500-$700 from a single transaction with the crooks. Money mules are recruited through work-at-home job offers that arrive via e-mail, usually claiming that the prospective employer found the recipient’s resume’ on careerbuilders.com, monster.com, or some other job search site. Recruits are told they will be helping to move money for international companies, and are asked to provide their bank account and routing numbers so that they can receive incoming transfers.
Now, technically speaking, most mules are by default fired after their first and only successful job: Each mule is worth slightly less than $10,000 to the cyber gangs, who will cease communicating with a mule the minute after he or she successfully wires the money to the crooks and e-mails the access number the criminals need to pick up the cash.
The mules’ job isn’t that difficult: Wait by the computer between 8 and 11 a.m. for a message saying a deposit is ready for withdraw. The mule is instructed to then go down to their bank, pull out the money in cash, and then wire it abroad via Western Union and Moneygram.
But you’d be surprised at how often the mules screw this up. Here are the Top 10 ways that mules can get fired:
10. Ask for paid maternity leave, or 401k matching. I spoke with a mule not long ago who was so naive she thought she was actually going to get the benefits described to her in the “employee contract” the mule recruiters sent to her via e-mail in a PDF file. In fairness, some of the employment contracts sent to prospective mules are rather convincing.
9. Show up late for work. Mule recruiters try very hard to impress upon mules the importance of pulling out any money transfers as quickly as possible. The reason is that, usually within 24 hours, the victim company or its bank will figure out that the a batch of transfers was unauthorized, and will seek to reverse it. If the money is still in the mules’ account when that reversal is initiated, the thieves usually can kiss that money goodbye. For that reason, many mule recruitment groups offer cash incentives to mules who complete their tasks within an hour or two of the mule’s local bank branch opening for the day.
8. In a conversation with your mule recruiter, start any sentence with, “So, I just got a call from my bank’s fraud department…”. [CLICK…DIAL TONE]
7. Complain about your negative $888,888.88 balance. Bank of America accounts often will be assigned this particular eye-popping but completely arbitrary balance to signify to bank employees that an account is frozen, often due to suspected fraud.
6. Ask to get paid. Money mules sometimes also get roped into reshipping scams, which involve receiving merchandise bought with stolen credit cards. The recruits are asked to then reship the goods to the cyber gangs overseas. According to interviews with several investigators who have worked a number of these reshipping scams, the reshipping mules usually are promised a big check at the end of the month, and in the meantime are sent dozens of packages to reship. Usually, the mule recruiters cease shipping items and all contact with the mules just a few days before the end of the first month, or whenever the mule asks to get paid, whichever comes first.
5. Tell your boss: “Listen, I’m not really comfortable with this Western Union stuff. Can’t I just send you a check?” Pinkslip!
4. Complain to your recruiter, “Hey, how come my bank account is now showing negative $9,500?”. Whoops.
3. Ask your mule handler, “Hey, do you know a guy named Bobbear?” There’s a good reason why this fearless fraud fighter’s Web site is frequently the target of distributed denial of service attacks.
2. When asked to provide an account into which customer (victim) funds will be transferred, give them an account number with the Police and Fire Federal Credit Union.
…and the number one way to get fired as a money mule?
1. Submit a wrong bank account or routing number. You’d be amazed at how many times the cyber gangs don’t get their money, all because a mule transposed a number. In several cases I’ve investigated, the victim company was first alerted to the fraud because a mule had given an incorrect routing number, causing the victim’s bank to generate an alert about a failed transfer. Bad mule! No commission for you!