Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

Don’t be tricked into becoming a money mule

As more people become cash-strapped and desperate in tough economic times, it becomes easier for criminals to recruit money mules.

South Africans are increasingly tricked into becoming money mules by fraudsters targeting vulnerable and cash-strapped individuals to move stolen money through their banking channels on behalf of criminals.

The number of people in South Africa suspected to be money mules soared in the past three years.

“With increasing unemployment rates, people are looking to make money, even if it means being involved in something unethical or illegal. While it may seem tempting for some, acting as a money mule is a criminal offence and anyone found to be involved in this form of illegal activity could face criminal charges, says Nokuthula Motlhomi, head of transactional fraud at Standard Bank.

She says criminals usually lure victims by promising money in return for depositing physical cash made from illegal activities into their accounts and then transferring the money into different accounts. In many instances, money mules are also scammed out of the money they are promised as well.

Another way of convincing victims into being money mules is under false pretences.  Motlhomi says criminals do not disclose that the funds are illicit but rather put forward an enticing reason that seems like a potentially harmless and profitable opportunity. The fraudsters know the weak spots of their targets and are often persistent in their approach.

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This is where money mules come from

Motlhomi says money mules are recruited from a range of backgrounds, age and gender groups.

“When recruiting, criminals approach potential mules with an offer of seemingly legitimate employment that masks the illegal nature of the work. However, in other cases, money mules are complicit in the criminal enterprise. They prefer to target people without criminal records to make it easier to evade the scrutiny of the authorities.”

According to the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC), criminals also often approach people who do not have an existing bank account. Fraudsters will then provide the necessary documentation and ask them to open accounts for them to transact on their behalf.

“As foreign nationals experience such difficulties and people want to be neighbourly, many people are tricked into opening accounts that are subsequently used by criminals to launder money,” SABRIC says.

Motlhomi warns that acting as a money mule is a criminal offense and if found guilty, they can face severe consequences.

“Most money mules can be charged with money laundering and bank fraud. Depending on the fraud scheme, additional criminal charges may also be added.”

Money mules could also damage their own credit and financial standing, lose their jobs if they are employed or diminish any chance of being employable as they will be added to offender lists. They may even be held responsible for repaying funds lost by victims of fraud.

Think twice before becoming a money mule

Motlhomi strongly advises anyone who is approached to act as a money mule to think twice before agreeing to do so as the risks far outweigh the reward and rather stop all communication and report the matter to their banks as well as the police.

“The best way to protect yourself from any online scam is to remain sceptical of anyone asking you for personal or financial information. If someone offers you a job opportunity, do background checks on the company to check it is legitimate. A legitimate company will not ask you to use your own bank account to transfer money.”

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Keep these warnings in mind

Motlhomi also warns consumers to be aware of:

  • Job descriptions and roles referring to ‘Financial Transaction Control Analyst’ or similar job titles, detailing responsibilities such as “transferring of funds to accounts indicated by our managers” and “receiving and processing incoming cash funds”.
  • Networks of debt “relief” companies that scour Facebook pages to collect data on people in financial trouble. They often use fake celebrity endorsements to legitimise their criminal offering, promising debt relief in return for a phone call.

She also warns against work-from-home job opportunities that may come in the form of:

  • An unsolicited e-mail or social media message that promises easy money for little or no effort with no specific job description.
  • Communication with web-based e-mail services, such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Outlook.
  • A request to open a bank account in your own name or in the name of a company you form to receive and transfer money.
  • A request from what seems to be your existing employer to receive funds in your bank account and then “process” or “transfer” funds using cryptocurrency wallets and the promise that you can keep a portion of the money you transfer.

Read more on these topics

Bank Fraud Crime fraud money laundering