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Why the problem of ‘money mules’ is only likely to grow

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A recent report from UK fraud prevention service Cifas revealed that young Britons are increasingly being persuaded to act as money mules for hackers and other criminals. The study highlighted a 27% rise in the number of 14 to 24-year-olds who allowed their bank accounts to be used to launder the proceeds of criminal activity last year. Throughout 2017, Cifas noted an 11% increase in the number of bank accounts that may have been used for money mule activities, suggesting that criminals are ramping up their efforts to recruit the cash-strapped to launder their ill-gotten gains. Worryingly, the number of people aged under 21 who let their bank accounts be used in this way rose by 36% in the UK last year. While there was an increase in cases of money muling across all age groups in Britain in 2017, it appears as though younger people have become a prime target for those who have dirty money to clean.

One of the biggest problems for criminals who amass large amounts of cash through their illicit activities is how to make that money appear as though it has come from a legitimate source. Over recent years, a growing number of individuals and groups with funds to launder have used the internet to recruit mules who are happy to have cash paid into their bank accounts before forwarding it on. After receiving dirty money, mules are typically either instructed to transfer it overseas, or withdraw cash and use a service such as Western Union to wire it out of the country they live in. For their trouble, they are offered a percentage of the sum they process, or a one-off fee. In some cases, mules can be offered thousands of dollars for what amounts to fewer than 30 minutes “work”.

While this can seem like an easy way to make some quick cash, the majority of mules are unaware of the punishment they could face if they are caught. On top of this, it is not uncommon for criminals to refuse to pay money to mules once they have done what is asked of them. Despite this, the Cifas data suggests the methods criminals are using to recruit money mules are working, and that warnings from law enforcement authorities about what could happen to anybody caught laundering the proceeds of crime are simply not being heard.

Criminals looking to recruit money mules often place advertisements on legitimate employment sites and classified listings services. Their ads are often worded in a way that disguises the true nature of the role they want potential mules to fulfil, and are typically intended to appeal to the economically disenfranchised, such as immigrants, the unemployed and students. A focus on the latter group is likely a key driver behind the increase in UK money mule cases involving young people. Messaging apps such as WhatsApp and social media platforms including Facebook are also used to lure young people in.

Unfortunately for those who are tempted to act as mules without knowing the gravity of the offence they might be committing, ignorance will typically not be accepted as an excuse if they are caught by the police. The likelihood of money laundering offences committed by mules being detected is high, not only on account of the fact that banks are constantly strengthening their procedures and systems to better detect suspicious activity, but also because law enforcement authorities routinely target organised criminals who seek out mules to launder their cash.

In November last year, Europol and the European Banking Federation (EBF) teamed up with police forces in 26 countries to crack down on criminal organisations that use money mules and money mules themselves. The operation resulted in 159 arrests, and the identification 766 money mules and 59 money mule organisers operating in various countries across the globe. In total, law enforcement agencies that took part in the crackdown detected illicit money transfers worth $36 million. Commenting on the success of the operation in a joint statement, Europol, Eurojust and the EBF said they would launch similar initiatives in the future as part of their efforts to fight money laundering and other financial crimes. The figures released by Cifas earlier this month suggest that these types of operations are having little impact on money mule organisers or the individuals who are willing to allow their bank accounts to be used in this way.

The disparity between the number of organisers and mules detected during the Europol-backed crackdown goes some way to explaining why. While criminals looking for mules to wash their dirty money know how to avoid being detected by police, those desperate enough to take up their offers are typically oblivious to the seriousness of what they are being asked to do. As such, cases of money muling are likely to continue to rise, resulting in individuals who would never dream of getting involved in this type of illegal activity facing the possibility of lengthy jail terms, and acquiring criminal records that could seriously alter the course of the rest of their lives.

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Crooked vendors exploiting flaw in eBay’s feedback system to con buyers into purchasing bogus and dangerous items

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Buyers on eBay are being duped into purchasing substandard and counterfeit products due to a flaw in the online auction platform’s seller feedback system, according to an investigation conducted by UK consumer group Which?

The watchdog found that dishonest vendors can take advantage of these flaws by linking positive reviews of genuine products manufactured by companies such as Apple and Samsung to fake and low-quality items.

Which? found that crooked sellers are able to link thousands of positive reviews to eBay listings they have nothing to do with.

The organisation discovered that real reviews can be associated with fake products that are potentially dangerous, such as counterfeit mobile phone chargers that can pose a fire risk.

Sellers are able to do this by using “product IDs” associated with genuine items when adding their products to eBay, subsequently benefitting from the positive reviews those items have attracted.

The system is intended to make the process of listing products on eBay quicker and easier by allowing sellers to pull information from similar items that have a linked product ID.

As part of its investigation, Which? purchased 20 bogus Apple and Samsung accessories such as chargers and USB cables that were supposed to be official and shared the same reviews as products manufactured by the two technology firms

Calling for online ecommerce platforms to be held accountable for flaws in their seller feedback systems that allow dishonest vendors to pull the wool over buyers’ eyes, Head of Home Products and Services at Which? Natalie Hitchins said: “Our investigation has uncovered yet another example of online reviews being manipulated to mislead people.

“eBay’s product review system is confusing for consumers and could even direct them towards counterfeit or dangerous products sold by unscrupulous sellers.

“Online reviews influence billions of pounds of consumer spending each year.

“The [UK Competition and Markets Authority] must now investigate how fake and misleading reviews are duping online shoppers, taking the strongest possible action against sites that fail to tackle the problem.”

Responding to the findings of Which?’s investigation eBay said in a statement: “The research does not fully consider that there are distinctions between product reviews (which provide buyers with a holistic review of the same product), and seller feedback (which can be used to see specific reviews of a seller’s performance and may reflect the item’s condition).”

Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that US politicians had called on lawmakers to hold ecommerce companies such as eBay and Amazon to account if they fail to prevent third-party vendors selling counterfeit or substandard products on their platforms.

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Major ‘lover boy’ prostitution gang broken up by coalition of European law enforcement agencies

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A Romanian human trafficking and prostitution network that used the “lover boy” method to entrap young women before forcing them into sex work has been broken up a coalition of European law enforcement agencies.

The lover boy method, also known as the “Romeo pimp” method, involves young men seducing victims with the objective of coercing them into prostitution.

Lover boy traffickers groom their victims to believe they have entered into a serious romantic relationship before using emotional, psychological and sometimes physical abuse to intimidate them into working in the sex services industry.

Investigators from Spain, Romania, the Czech Republic and several other European nations were involved in the operation that resulted in the dismantling of the gang, which is said to have groomed and exploited at least 10 young women by forcing them to work as prostitutes.

The operation resulted in the arrest of 14 people in Romania and Spain, the safeguarding of 10 trafficking victims, and the confiscation of a number of items, including a quantity of cash, jewellery, expensive vehicles and several electronic devices.

In total, the agencies taking part in the effort raided 16 properties in the Czech Republic, Romania and Spain.

Having groomed their victims, Romanian members of the network would develop manipulative dependent relationships with the young women they targeted before forcing them into sex work.

Once under the traffickers’ control, victims would be abused and drugged before being sold onto other members of the network for as much as €6,000 ($6,632) each.

The women would then be moved between locations and countries on a regular basis as part of the gang’s efforts to avoid the attention of police.

Profits made by the network were laundered through the purchase of property, expensive jewellery and high-value cars.

Ongoing investigations into the network’s activities are focussed on the theory that it was working in cooperation with another gang.

Enquires have already resulted in the identification of more than 40 additional women who fell victim to the two criminal organisations.

In a statement, Europol said: “Europol facilitated the information exchange between the participating countries, provided coordination support and analysed operational information against Europol’s databases to give leads to investigators.

“Europol conducted a financial analysis based on the information provided which highlighted the extension of the criminal activity of the group and the presence and flow of illicit profits to other jurisdictions.”

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Taking cocaine will not cure people struck down with the coronavirus, French government warns public

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Authorities in France have been forced to inform the public that taking cocaine will not cure people infected with the coronavirus.

Taking to Twitter on Sunday, the French Ministry for Solidarity and Health told its followers that cocaine is not only ineffective when it comes to fighting the coronavirus, but is also a highly addictive drug that can cause serious harm to users’ health.

The government department was seeking to counter fake news circulating on social media that taking the drug could cure or prevent the virus, including doctored news stories that appeared to confirm the drug’s effectiveness at fighting the disease.

The ministry’s Twitter post included a link to a government information page that provided further guidance on disinformation circulating about the coronavirus outbreak.

As well as encouraging those worried about the coronavirus to start taking cocaine, online trolls have also suggested that bleach can also help fight the disease.

In a post on Twitter that has attracted many thousands of engagements, @Jordan_Sather_ told his followers: “Would you look at that. Not only is chlorine dioxide (aka ‘MMS’) an effective cancer cell killer, it can wipe out coronavirus too.

“No wonder YouTube has been censoring basically every single video where I discuss it over the last year.”

In August of 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about that dangers of consuming bleach, noting: “Drinking any… chlorine dioxide products can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.”

As well as warning about cocaine’s inability to fight the coronavirus, the French government has also told members of the public that spraying bleach or alcohol on their bodies will not neutralise viruses they have already been infected with.

Elsewhere, US Vodka maker Tito’s Homemade was last week forced to urge people not to make DIY hand sanitiser out of its products.

Responding to one of its customers who said they had done just that, the company said on Twitter: “Per the CDC [Centres for Disease Control and Prevention], hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is 40% alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC. Please see attached for more information.”

For its part, the World Health Organisation, which today officially categorised the coronavirus as a pandemic, has published a webpage dispelling misinformation about the disease, noting that the virus cannot be killed of avoided by taking a hot bath or using hand dryers.

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