FBI warns of 'money mule' schemes exploiting coronavirus

The FBI is out with a new warning that criminals may try to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic through a a tempting scheme.

It starts off as a harmless enough request. You receive an email, maybe through an online job site or a dating website. Provide your bank account information and allow money transfers to flow through your account. You move the money for someone and they pay you a little cash for your trouble or lure you with the potential of a romantic relationship.

Sounds easy, even profitable, right?

Wrong. Acting as a so called “money mule” may land you in prison and ruin you financially.

The FBI says scam artists are taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak to launder ill-gotten gains by accessing your personal and financial information and then using you to move the money for them.

Agents say criminals convince other people, the money mules, into moving illicit money for them oftentimes through fund transfers or even the physical movement of cash.

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Some of the money comes from internet scams, while other sources include drug trafficking, human trafficking and other illegal business schemes.

"It's not easy for criminals to move their ill-gotten money around without attracting the attention of law enforcement, so they actively recruit other people to be money mules,” said Section Chief Steven Merrill of the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section. “Money mules allow criminals to mask their identities, move money across country lines, and avoid arousing the suspicions of financial institutions."

And acting as a money mule, allowing others to use your bank account or conducting financial transactions on behalf of others, is a crime whether or not you realize what you’re doing is illegal.

On top of the potential crime, participating in a money mule scheme compromises your personal information as well as your financial details. The FBI advises that unless you are personally or professionally involved in a money transaction, then you should refuse to send or receive money on behalf of others.

Several years ago, the FBI surveyed more than 300 people who had been conned into transferring money for criminals, looking for a common thread among the victims. What they found was that work-from-home schemes along with dating sites were behind many of the cases, but that the victims themselves spanned every race, gender and age demographic. In other words, nobody was immune from being targeted.

"To recruit money mules, criminals will prey on people's sympathies and natural desire to help someone they perceive as being in need,” Merrill said. “The tragic thing about a lot of money mules is they're normal, law-abiding people, who have been tricked into doing something illegal. That's why it's important for the public to recognize the warning signs."

As unemployment figures continue to soar, with 16 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last three weeks, agents say the work-from-home schemes continue to proliferate, often times asking you to open bank accounts, or use your own back account to transfer funds and in return you get to keep a portion of the money.

But the coronavirus pandemic adds a whole new dimension to the plot, and the FBI is now warning of the following scenarios, which many times begin with individuals claiming to be located overseas, contacting you by emails, texts and phone calls:

  • Individuals claiming to be U.S. service members stationed overseas asking you to send or receive money on behalf of themselves or a loved one battling COVID-19

  • Individuals claiming to be U.S. citizens working abroad asking you to send or receive money on behalf of themselves or a loved one battling COVID-19

  • Individuals claiming to be U.S. citizens quarantined abroad asking you to send or receive money on behalf of themselves or a loved one battling COVID-19

  • Individuals claiming to be in the medical equipment business asking you to send or receive money on their behalf

  • Individuals affiliated with a charitable organization asking you to send or receive money on their behalf

The FBI is alerting the public to steer clear of any requests by strangers to act as a money mule, and if you are contacted, to get in touch with your local FBI office.