January 20, 2010

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!

14 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways to Get Fired as a Money Mule

  1. Rick

    Wow. Leaves us speechless. Mostly because we’re doubled up with laughter. 😉

  2. d

    Awww… I guess now they will have to find REAL jobs like the rest of us. Hopefully, after sending some time in a small cell with bars.

  3. Charlie G.

    I’m really, really impressed with the ingenuity displayed… a good Marx Bros. movie scenario starring Harpo vv. Woody Allen and Jane Fonda, with Marlon Brando working the ‘phones.

    (…send my commission payments and royalties to……) …provided upon request.

  4. qka


    Or maybe they do it for sport? Have you ever seen the website http://www.419eater.com ? It is the accounts of folks who have led 419 scammers on a merry chase, by trying to comply with the scammers wishes but always running into a little problem of their own. In some cases, the scammers suffer more than if they had been arrested and convicted of the 419 scam.

    1. AlphaCentauri

      Yeah, the idea about transferring the money to the Police and Fire Federal Credit Union sounds like even more fun than freight-baiting.

  5. JackRussell

    Thanks for the 419eater link – it isn’t often that something comes up in this field that is quite that funny.

    The thought comes to mind that the good guys could interfere with the people behind the money mules by signing up, wasting their time by asking stupid questions, and supplying incorrect routing information so that the transactions bounce and are detected more quickly. I don’t know what the legalities of all of this would be however, but it amuses me to contemplate doing it.

    Come to think of it, the authorities could do something along these lines, use the information to instantly freeze the compromised accounts and potentially reverse more of the transfers that might have been sent to other money mules.

  6. Beeker

    The 419eater is funny and it is rare to see it come up.
    I’ve gotten my fair share of it and my background in finance, I know right away it is a scam.

    Doesn’t surprise me.

  7. wiredog

    Completely off topic, but, where did you get the jackass image? Arizona?

  8. BrianKrebs Post author

    Hey wiredog. Actually no, I got it from a stock photo images site: istockphoto.com

    Thanks for catching the jackass reference. The title of the photo is actually “Jackass on the loose.” I liked it best out of all the rest because it sort of blended the drug mule and money mule thing all in one. 🙂

  9. Roger

    I’m surprised the no. 1 reason is not “clear the account out for yourself, and run!”

    Sure, you’re probably dealing with some very nasty characters here, but for such a shonky enterprise it can’t be easy for them to verify the contact info you send them during the “job application” phase.

    I wouldn’t try this myself, but I’m really surprised that they are not getting constantly ripped off by their own mules.

  10. k


    I believe the money is fake but when you put it in your bank and cash it and send the rest (you get a percentage) you are sending real money. Then when the bank discovers the money order or check was fake then you OWE.

    So no such thing as “clear the account out for yourself, and run!”

  11. Steve Taylor

    Nice article except for one small thing:

    > so-called “drug mules” — people who physically carry illegal substances on their person while crossing the U.S. border.

    U.S.? It turns out there are other borders in the world.

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