Lovesick money mules or guilty conspirators?

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?
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

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.

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