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How to spot a money mule scam before you’re in too deep

Security specialist

2024-04-03 00:00

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Imagine that you’ve started a new job, you’re eager to impress, and two weeks in you get a request from your new boss. “Can you do me a quick favour? I just transferred you some money to pay an invoice. Can you send it to the following account?” The request doesn’t seem suspicious at all, and you’re a team player so you get the job done. So far, it seems like the right thing to do, right?

Well, unfortunately, this is just one of the ways a person can be tricked into becoming a money mule for criminal money laundering. Money laundering is the effort made by criminals to disguise the original source of profit made from illegal activities. It often involves moving money through different accounts and making false payments. It’s generally an offshoot of larger, more complex scams that target Australians of all ages and backgrounds, so it’s important to understand how they operate and make sure you can spot the red flags.

“Money mule scams are very prevalent in Australia,” says Khaled Abou Sahyoun, ANZ’s Inbound Fraud Investigations Manager. “In some cases, the mules are unaware that they are participating in an illegal activity and in other cases they are completely aware due to the fact of wanting to make quick money.”

And that’s why we’re going to guide you through how these scams work, how to identify if you’re being targeted, and what to do to keep yourself safe from cybercrime.


What are money mule scams?

Money mule scams are distinct from most other cybercrimes because, on their own, they don’t involve the target being robbed. Instead, the scammer will use you to move or launder funds that are linked with criminal activity. This is so those funds can be disguised as legitimate and moved around (often, but not always, out of the country) without detection by law enforcement. But this doesn’t mean you won’t be financially harmed in the process, as these scams often operate as a part of a larger scam that involves theft.

Even if you’re not being scammed out of your own money, you are being put at significant risk by becoming involved in criminal activity. If you’re caught up in a money mule scam, you could walk away with damage to your credit rating, and risk identity theft by the criminals behind the scam. Beyond that, in Australia, money laundering is a criminal offense that can result in hefty punishments including prison time. Pretty scary stuff, right? Let’s take a closer look at how these scams work.


How do money mule scams work? 

Cybercriminals will target their potential money mule through various platforms, some common ways these scams manifest include:

  • Jobs advertised on social media or recruitment websites: The cybercriminal will perform a classic job scam to get you hooked, then ask you to receive and transfer funds to another bank account. They may also ‘accidentally’ transfer a large sum to you and ask you to transfer it back to them via a third account.

  • Romance scammers using targets as money mules: This will often start with a romance scam (sometimes referred to as catfishing), where a scammer impersonates a love interest you meet online. As well as asking for your money, they can also ask you to hold onto large sums of money for them.

  • Identity compromise due to a data breach: In this instance, you won’t have had any contact with the cybercriminal. Instead, you will discover that your identity has been used to open new accounts for the purposes of money laundering, which implicates you in criminal activity. 

Money mule scam red flags:

  • If a romantic interest online asks you to hold onto or transfer money for them.

  • Being offered a portion of the money as a reward for transferring a much larger sum through your bank account.

  • If a job you have been offered sounds unusual, or too good to be true (high pay for little effort, vague description of title and responsibilities).

  • Being asked by an employer to create a new bank account or to register a new company to create new bank accounts.

  • Getting job offer emails from a company that doesn’t have their own domain name and instead operates through a web-based email account like Gmail or Outlook. 


How can you protect yourself against money mule scams? 

Money mule scams, while not as prevalent as some other cybercrimes, carry significant consequences for victims who find themselves caught up in them. Luckily there are some simple ways to keep yourself safe from becoming a target:

  • Be sceptical if you’re offered a reward or payment for transferring money on behalf of someone. Always find other means of contacting the person or company they represent to verify the legitimacy of the request.

  • Be wary of job offers that require you to use your own bank account to send and receive funds.

  • Do not let anyone you have met online use your bank account for any transactions or transfers.

  • Do not share your passwords, PINs, one-time passcodes or personal details with anyone online, or over the phone.

  • Keep across all activity in your bank accounts so you can spot any red flags early on.


What can you do if you’ve been involved in a money mule scam?

If you have been caught up in a money mule scam, it’s important to take immediate action to keep yourself safe. Because this scam often unknowingly involves the target in criminal activity, your first point of contact should be the police.

  • If you have shared financial information or believe you have transferred money to a scammer, notify your bank immediately. If you’re an ANZ customer, please contact us immediately.

  • If you shared credit card details, block or cancel those cards immediately. If your cards are with ANZ, you can do this through the app. Learn more.

  • Report the scam to the platform the scammer used to engage with you, such as social media or a job search website.


Who can you contact if you’ve been involved in a money mule scam?

  • Report the scam to the Police through the Australian Signals Directorate’s ReportCyber portal. This resource is there for reports of scams where money or personal information has been lost.

  • You can contact the Australian cyber security hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 1300 CYBER1 (or 1300 292 371).

  • You can also contact IDCare, a not-for-profit organisation providing support to those experiencing identity and cyber security concerns.

  • Help others by reporting to Scamwatch to help them prevent future losses, monitor trends and educate the population about emerging threats.
How to spot a money mule scam before you’re in too deep
Security specialist

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This information seeks to raise awareness and provides general information only. It may be necessary or appropriate  to ensure that measures are taken in addition to, or in substitution for, the measures presented having regard to your particular personal or business circumstances.