A deep sense of doubt and dread began to sink in halfway through our journey down a long, lonely desert highway from just outside Austin to coastal Texas. We were racing against the clock (we’d just scarfed down our third meal in a row at a roadside Subway shop), yet my minivan companions — a filmmaker from California and a husband-and-wife camera crew — seemed pleased with the footage we’d collected so far. I was far less sanguine about our prospects, and was almost certain that our carefully-laid plans to ambush a money mule on camera were about to unravel.
The scheme was hatched by Berkeley writer/director Charles Koppelman, who’d emailed me in mid-2011 about the possibility of catching some money mules on camera for a documentary he’s working on called Zero Day. Koppelman said the money shot would be a mule coming out of a bank with a wad of cash in hand, but that he’d settle for an old-fashioned sit-down interview.
At the time, I was working with a source who was injected into the communications networks of several money mule recruitment gangs. These miscreants specialize in hiring willing and unwitting “mules” through work-at-home job scams. The mules then are asked to process bank transfers that help organized cyber thieves launder money stolen from small businesses victimized by cybercrime. The networks my source was monitoring indicated the gang was grooming between 75 and 100 mules across the country on any given day, and that they were sending fraudulent transfers to mules almost daily.
I told Charles that for such a plan to work, we’d need to focus on areas that typically held the most number of mules per capita, and that meant somewhere in Florida or Texas. When my source indexed the mules and sorted them by hometown, we discovered that there were five mules being groomed for payments within about 200 miles of Austin, Texas. If we rented a car and checked in with my source on a regular basis, we might be able to secure the footage he was after, I suggested.
But I cautioned Koppelman that I gave our plan about a 20 percent chance of working. I predicted that most of the mules would quit, screw up the transfer task, or be used and discarded by the time we flew down there and actually hit the road. Indeed, when we reached our fleabag motel just south of Austin on Aug. 3, 2011, my prognostication had almost come true entirely: We were down to one last money mule: Geridana, a young, unemployed single mother of two from Webster, a small town of about 9,000 residents in southeastern Texas.
On the morning of Aug. 4, we piled into the minivan again and raced down to Webster. We didn’t attempt to make contact with her until we were parked outside of her apartment complex, which was next door to a bail bonds shop. Turns out that Geridana was a bit of an oddity: The $9,000+ the thieves had just sent her was actually the fourth such transfer that Geridana had processed in as many weeks. The most pathetic aspect of the whole scheme? She never got paid her promised monthly salary or per-task commissions.
I’ll stop the story here, because I don’t want to spoil the movie. That is, if it ever attracts enough funding to be finished. The film is co-financed by BBC Storyville, but Koppelman and his son Walker just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000 to ensure continued filming of the project. A short introduction to their effort (including a scene starring Yours Truly) is available in the teaser video clip below. The filmmakers are also working with New York Times reporter John Markoff, Reuters reporter Joe Menn, and author Misha Glenny.
“PAUL HARVEY ” The rest of the story , next page peanut gallery .
I signed on as a backer. Hope Zero Day gets the $20K in the*** week!***
Thanks, Brian, for letting us know about this and thanks for all you do for safety in the cyber community.
meh, begging for kickstarter money smells like a scam to me. pass (try harder next time).
yay, i passed the test!
Driving from Austin to East Texas and you’re eating at Subway? When there are so many good local barbecue joints?
…and good Tex-Mex restaurants as well, even if you’re in a real hurry! Closer to the coast in SE Texas, there will be some excellent seafood and cajun-style swamp food as well.
Seriously though, as a well-traveled Texas native and resident I’m not too surprised with Brian’s report that Florida and Texas have the highest concentrations of money mules for these scams. Does the film explore the underlying reasons why this is so, or must we rely on malformed anecdote and speculation?
I know! That was the most awful part of the trip, and why I included that detail in the lead paragraph. It was truly a hardship and a heartbreak. But it was my second time in Austin last year, and I did get to have some great food the other time. 🙂
Did you pay cash at Subway? Big not, was your payment card stolen?
Another backer of the project, let me extend every best wish in meeting your funding goal — and, of course, express my gratitude for your many years of working to make cyberspace safer for all.
Webster, Tx is a small town, but it is right night to NASA-JSC and close enough to Houston, that people seldom say they are from “Webster.” Heck, I lived in Webster and my postal address was still “Houston.”
My point is that this is not a small, hick, town.
That drive from Austin to Houston on Hwy-71 is beautiful. I actually want my ashes dumped just east of Austin on Hwy 71 on a spring day after I’m dead. Simple beauty.
I also agree with the BBQ guy – subway with all that Central Tx BBQ nearby? Are you crazy?!!!!!!
Zero Day was also a book. Any relation?
Sounds interesting. I hope the filmmakers go into great detail about how a money mule is used from start to finish. What kind of communications go back and forth? What kind of “verification” that the mule isn’t law enforcement?
Although, I’m disappointed to see John Markoff involved. He has untouchable baggage from his dishonesty in the Kevin Mitnick case. Why bring someone with serious ethical issues aboard? Runs counter to the mission of fighting badness.
Seems like a no-brainer for a company like Trusteer to sponsor this film.
Well its just easy to say that with the film or without it , people are stupid .
and the mules 90% they know that the money are fraud .
and they agree and other people who being hacked they know that is fake page even if you write on SCAM PAGE , hey am hacker and i want to steal your money , so like this is clear but the stupid will enter their information .
One more things it look like Bkrebs getting poor , so he want to make a film and ask people to donate for it , good way to make nice founds 🙂 , same job same scam with good way damn ya
Oh yes, don’t you know I’ve decided to become a filmmaker and quit my work as an online investigative journalist. That you actually think I stand to make money from this venture is a laugh. I decided to help Charles with his effort because I believe it’s worthwhile, and I’d like to see him succeed.
I just knew you’d graduate to video journalism Brian! Good to see this transition. Now if I can find “KickStart”!!
Since there’s already a movie called, “Zero Day”, I suspect that Koppleman’s preference will remain a working title. Please let us know the final release title when it’s available.
As a british tax payer who pays his TV licence fee, i feel i have allready contributed 🙂
Good on ya, Brian. Nice one. You might not be ready for the prime time acting, though. 🙂
Hoping this is technically aware, to a level that is rare these days. Would be nice. Seems like it could be. Plan on donating tonight, when I get home.