Lovesick money mules or guilty conspirators?

Lovesick money mules or guilty conspirators?

Summary: It's official: Australia is an easy target for Russian crime gangs — some are even turning Aussie lonely hearts into money mules. But are those "victims" actually guilty?

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TOPICS: Banking
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It's official: Australia is an easy target for Russian crime gangs — some are even turning Aussie lonely hearts into money mules. But are those "victims" actually guilty?

Around AU$500,000 of money stolen from within Australia is siphoned offshore each month by Queensland mules, according to the state's police — a well-entrenched problem for banks, money transfer services and the police.

But are these mules really victims or cunning opportunists?

In the job-seeker money mule scam, victims are enticed to apply for seemingly simple work through fake job advertisements. The ads often rely on big brand names, such as financial institutions, to add authenticity to the supposed work. As part of their new "jobs", victims are asked to send a sum of cash using either Western Union or their personal bank accounts to a foreign destination, after which they receive a percentage commission.

Despite the quality of deception within the fake job ads, I find it difficult to believe that anyone who applies for a job where the only requirement is to transfer money from one unknown source to another isn't aware that something is fishy. The fact that the work is so ridiculously easy would raise suspicions in even the most trusting of people.

Peter Muggleston, acting head of technology for New Zealand's Auckland Savings Bank (ASB), reckons many so-called victims are merely playing dumb to escape prosecution and says banks are taking a hard approach to the problem.

"One thing that always comes through is mules claiming they are innocent victims... People are choosing to believe that it is above board, but if you stop and thought about it, even for a second, it's obviously dodgy... The reality is we will prosecute mules," he told ZDNet.com.au recently.

I initially found myself agreeing with Muggleston's sentiment. That is, until last week when I discovered a new scam, which targets lonely hearts. Instead of a job, the promise is a Russian bride.

The victim is told that, in order to be united with his sweetheart, he needs to help his "bride" fund her airfare by sending money entrusted to him by a friend of the "bride" to some offshore location, using Western Union or his bank account.

The scam takes many months to execute for the "bride" to gain the victim's trust, according to Queensland Police's Brian Hay. To me this seemed more like a real scam, not just Muggleston's mule who has found a plausible excuse to deny criminal intent. Hay reckons the best way to deal with the problem is "target hardening" — ensuring that would-be targets are aware of the scam and simply delete any emails from unknown sources.

Hays also told me that most of the job-seeking money mules cases that he has seen involve the mule first handing every single identity document to the scammer before taking on the "work". Why would a person who knows how the scam works be willing to hand over their genuine identity?

So what should we do? If we take Muggleston's approach, and assume that mules know what they are doing, real victims would never come forth; there'd be no information and everyone remains soft targets. On the other hand, if we assume innocence like Hay, people might start claiming there was no criminal intent on their part and mules can work without fear of punishment.

Or perhaps the police should start placing ads for money mules of the job-seeker or lonely heart variety. Anyone who falls for it could then be sent to a basic course in email management to correct their ways before they harm themselves. Prevention is, after all, better than a cure.

Topic: Banking

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

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2 comments
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  • Not as black and white as you seem to believe

    I am inclined to quote some statistics on stupidity, but will simply say that a helluva lot of people simply don't think much - ever.

    I have one friend who I have had to advise at least twenty times about checking e-mails on Snopes before he forwards them. The same guy has at least three times needed considerable time to convince that the "wonderful opportunity" that has just arrived in his Inbox is in fact a scam.

    The simple fact is that about 50% of the population has less than average intelligence, and being in that group does not prevent them being on the Internet.

    Even some who are naive, but try to think about things, can get caught in things like this. How often do we find out that something is more complicated than it appears on the surface? Most people *expect* that they find out that things aren't as simple as they seem. Accordingly, the fact that the "job" initially seems so simple doesn't surprise; they know they will get to the tricky bit a little further along the line.

    I wish that everyone would think before they act, but then we would have very few car accidents (or accidents of other types).

    Most people think far too much with their hearts to let their heads get in the way...
    anonymous
  • lovesick pricks

    I can answer this one for ya - you cant tame a wild animal nor break it in. This money mule lost its saddle sometime ago. Now turning from lovesick mule into a quick footed brumby charging at you.

    Saddle is on the other hoof from now on.

    Regards lovesick mule
    anonymous