Crime rings recruiting stay-at-home folks in US

They are hunting for potential money mules as newly jobless look for work amid pandemic

Ms Denise Newton accidentally became what is known in security circles as a money mule when she was invited to be a “local hub inspector”. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - It seems like an easy job that you can do at home.

Be paid up to a few hundred dollars each time for the seemingly easy task of receiving parcels or money and then redistributing them to other people on a list given to you.

Before you say "yes" to such jobs, be mindful that the people who may show up at your door next could be the police.

Some international crime syndicates have apparently started to recruit stay-at-home folks during the pandemic to help them launder their ill-gotten gains by becoming their money mules.

A spate of such cases has surfaced in the United States.

For instance, Alabama resident Denise Newton was invited by a company named Heies to apply for a job as a "local hub inspector".

She then started to receive boxes with Apple Watches and laptops in them. Her job was to open the boxes, check the contents and then mail them off to foreign addresses.

But something was off. The boxes were suspiciously plain, even though they included brand-name products. When she asked questions, her new employer stopped responding. In June, she reported Heies to the Better Business Bureau.

It turned out that she had become what is known in security circles as a money mule, an accomplice who, either knowingly or unknowingly, helps international criminal rings move their ill-gotten gains.

In her case, swindlers appeared to be buying products in the US with stolen money and then mailing them - using unwitting intermediaries like her to disguise their involvement - to overseas locations where the goods could be resold for cash.

"They really caught me at the perfect time. I was just one of those desperate people looking for a job," Ms Newton, 24, said.

Since the pandemic's onset in March, the number of criminal schemes relying on money mules has spiked. In total, online human resource schemes where criminals pose as potential employers have soared 295 per cent from a year ago, while schemes used for money laundering have skyrocketed by 609 per cent, according to security firm ZeroFox.

Many people who perpetrate these frauds are based overseas, the authorities said, so they need to move the money to their home country. Banks and the authorities have made it harder to launder money through traditional financial channels in recent years.

So these criminals are now increasingly on the hunt for a larger supply of potential money mules just as many newly unemployed people look for work.

Money mules are not new, and their numbers have risen alongside online fraud more broadly over the last two decades. Some people enter the business knowing it is illegal.

Advertisements looking for money mules on the so-called darknet, an anonymous corner of the Internet popular with criminals, often acknowledge the illegal aspect of the work.

Yet seven people who became money mules during the pandemic told The New York Times that they had no inkling of what their so-called employer was up to when they began the work. Many had recently lost their jobs and needed to pay the bills.

To avoid exposure to the coronavirus, they were also looking for jobs to do from home, just what many swindlers want from a money mule.

Ms Alma Sardas, 21, had been furloughed from her job at a hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, this spring, when she saw a listing on jobs website ZipRecruiter advertising a work-from-home position as a "virtual assistant" to a businessman in Hong Kong.

She sat through a formal interview and spoke with a man who called himself Hermann Ziegler, who said he would be her boss.

Once she was hired, she was sent a cheque for US$4,590 (S$6,260) to deposit into her bank account. She was told to use some of the money for her expenses and to send the rest from her account to her new employer's vendors.

She became sceptical about why the money would need to go through her bank account and called the local police. They explained that she had almost been caught in a classic money-laundering scheme.

The schemes using money mules are varied. Some people who become mules are victims of online romance frauds who make bank and wire transfers for people they believe care about them.

Others, like Ms Sardas, are asked to use their own bank accounts to make financial transactions on behalf of their new employers.

Ms Newton became embroiled in what is known as a re-shipping scheme, where the fraudsters buy goods with their stolen money and then use mules to get the products overseas, where they can be resold.

Apart from Apple Watches and laptops, Ms Newton said she was also sent odd items, including a pack of sponges and a garbage disposal.

By the time she reported Heies to the Better Business Bureau, the numbers and e-mails that the company had used were dead. Its website had also been taken down. The perpetrators, who have faced other online complaints, have not been caught.

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