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Europe-wide action targets money mule schemes

A European-wide initiative to tackle money mules has led to two women and one man being arrested across the south of England on suspicion of money laundering.

The operational activity, directed by the City of London Police Money Laundering Unit and supported by the National Crime Agency, was focused on addresses in Luton, Swindon and Ilford.

The suspects, aged 29,38, and 45, are believed to have been involved in a criminal operation that laundered up to £1.3 million stolen from a Belgium businessman after his email account was hacked and his bank was then conned into transferring funds into the money mule accounts.

The UK arrests formed part of an operation last week (Feb 22-26) that saw law enforcement agencies and judicial bodies from Belgium, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain and Portugal join forces in the first coordinated European action against money muling.

As a result nearly 700 money mules were identified across Europe and 81 individuals were arrested after 198 suspects were interviewed by law enforcement agencies. With the support of over 70 banks, significant financial losses were discovered and prevented, and over 900 victims of this crime were identified. More than 90% of the reported money mule transactions were linked to cybercrime.

During the action days a command centre was set up by Europol in cooperation with Eurojust to assist the national authorities, cross-check all incoming data against the Agency’s databases and collect intelligence for further analysis.

Money mules are individuals recruited by criminal organisations to receive and transfer illegally obtained money between bank accounts and/or countries.

Through the money mules, the criminals gain access to the stolen goods or funds without revealing their identity. These fraudulent schemes are often advertised through online postings and social media as seemingly legitimate job opportunities.

The recruited individuals may be willing participants, however some are unaware that their actions foster the cycle of criminal activity.

Money mules may also help perpetuate other crimes beyond money laundering as the stolen money might go towards funding other forms of organised crime, such as drug dealing and human trafficking.

The European Money Mule Action (EMMA) is a pilot operational project under the flag of EMPACT Cybercrime Payment Fraud Operational Action Plan, designed to combat online and payment card fraud.

EMMA is modelled after a Dutch example successfully employed in recent years in the Netherlands. This action builds upon the effective partnership between the police, the prosecution and the banking sector at the national as well as the international level.

This multi-sector action against money muling marks the start of a prevention campaign in all the participating countries in order to raise awareness about this growing criminal phenomenon and its consequences.  

In a number of countries the consequences for acting as a money mule can be severe. By agreeing to these illegal schemes the money mules risk the loss of their own personal information to the criminals, as well as long-term impacts on their bank accounts and credit scores, financial accountability for the crime committed and criminal charges.

Detective Inspector Craig Mullish, from the City of London Police Money Laundering Unit, said:

“The arrest of three suspected money mules reinforces the United Kingdom’s commitment to tackling this criminality both inside and outside our borders. Money mules are an increasingly key component of an organised crime gang’s operation, with people both knowingly and sometimes unknowingly allowing their bank accounts to be used to transfer significant sums of money generated from other crimes.

“The European Money Mule Action (EMMA) also highlights how countries across the continent are working together, sharing intelligence and best practice, to get to grips with this problem and stopping the free-flow of criminal funds through bank accounts set-up in Europe and around the World.”

Emma Smith from the NCA’s Economic Crime Command said :

“Money mules play a crucial role in allowing organised crime groups to launder profits and transfer the money internationally. Criminals frequently target vulnerable victims or those keen to make some quick money - but the cost to the mule can be huge.

If you become involved in money muling, even unwittingly, you may be responsible for all the criminal funds that have passed through your account, and face stiff and lasting penalties as a result. I would urge everyone to be vigilant to this type of criminal activity, and if you become aware of it, contact Action Fraud.”

Rob Wainwright, Europol’s Director said :

“The European Money Mule Action is recognition on all sides that public-private partnerships based on mutual trust and effective reporting mechanisms are the way forward to combat financial crime. This international operation is ambitious: beyond showing the excellent cooperation between law enforcement, judicial and the banking partners, it also emphasises that prevention is an essential part of our work. These individuals recruited as money mules are duped by criminals to launder funds with the promise of easy money. Uncovering the depth of these schemes and informing the public about how these criminals operate are also our responsibility to prevent the criminals from taking advantage of unsuspecting people.”

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