On April 6, 2020, the FBI warned that fraudsters were taking advantage of uncertainty and fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic to steal your money, access your personal and financial information, and use you as a money mule.

Acting as a money mule is allowing others to use your bank account or conducting financial transactions on behalf of others. While the concept seems like something any individual could easily avoid, like most things, criminals have found enticing ways to draw you in. Regardless of the draw, this activity is illegal. It is simply another way criminals can move and launder money.

The FBI advises that the simplest rule of thumb is to avoid involvement in any transactions unless they are personally or professionally directly your concern.

In times normal times, indicators of this activity may include:

  • You receive an unsolicited email or contact over social media promising easy money for little to no effort.
  • The “employer” you communicate with uses web-based email (such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or Outlook).
  • You are asked to open up a bank account in your own name or in the name of a company you form to receive and transfer money.
  • As an employee, you are asked to receive funds in your bank account and then “process funds” or “transfer funds” via a wire transfer, ACH, mail, or money service business (such as Western Union or MoneyGram).
  • You are allowed to keep a portion of the money you transfer.
  • Your duties have no specific job description.
  • Your online companion, whom you have never met in person, asks you to receive money and then forward the funds to an individual you do not know.

In the times of a global pandemic, additional indicators may include:

  • People claiming to be U.S. service members stationed overseas who ask you to send or receive money on behalf of themselves or a loved one battling COVID-19.
  • People claiming to be U.S. citizens working abroad who ask you to send or receive money on behalf of themselves or a loved one battling COVID-19.
  • People claiming to be U.S. citizens quarantined abroad who ask you to send or receive money on behalf of themselves or a loved one battling COVID-19.
  • People claiming to be in the medical equipment business who ask you to send or receive money on their behalf.
  • People claiming to be affiliated with charitable organizations who ask you to send or receive money on their behalf.

Unemployed individuals are considered the main targets of these schemes. However, individuals may not be the only at-risk group to be money mules. The shift of business to near-exclusive online transactions, the high-rates of lending for small businesses, and the use of bartering in some areas creates possibilities for alternative money mule schemes.

The following standard compliance practices may just help you avoid trouble:

  • Know – identify and verify who is engaging you, how, and for what purpose. Ask Questions!
  • Monitor – pay attention to the activities you’re asked to do, legitimacy – if any – may dwindle over time.
  • Report – if you’re suspicious, stop the activity, don’t spend or return the money, and call authorities.

Bottom line - individuals and businesses should use a strong combination of common sense and confidence to avoid being manipulated into illegal activity. If it seems too good to be true – in these tough times especially – it probably is.