Young people whose job prospects have been impacted by the pandemic are being targeted online by criminals looking to recruit money mules to launder the profits of their crimes, UK Finance and Cifas have warned.

The latest research from Cifas has revealed there were 17,157 cases of suspected money muling activity involving 21-30 year olds in 2020, a five per cent increase on the previous year.

This age group accounted for 42 per cent of money mule activity in 2020, up from 38 per cent three years ago. It was among the hardest hit by the economic impact of Covid-19, with thousands facing job losses as a result of the pandemic and graduates entering the jobs market at a time of unprecedented uncertainty.

Intelligence suggests criminals are exploiting people’s financial difficulties by using social media platforms, jobs websites and phishing emails to approach them with offers of easy cash. They will use the promise of earning money quickly to convince individuals to provide their bank details, before asking them to transfer the funds received to another account and keep some of the cash for themselves, making them a money mule.

Often, people are unaware that allowing their bank accounts to be used in this way is a crime which will have long-term consequences when they are caught. This could include a criminal record, having their bank account closed and difficulty opening one elsewhere, and trouble obtaining mobile phone contracts or accessing credit in future. Those who become money mules are also often not aware that the cash they are laundering is used by criminals to facilitate serious crimes such as terrorism, drug trafficking and people smuggling.

The criminals will typically post adverts on legitimate jobs websites or social media, using terms such as “money transfer agents” or “local processors” to recruit people to launder the profits of their crimes. They may also create profiles on social media platforms, infiltrate popular groups or special interest pages to seek out suitable targets, and post images showing off a luxury lifestyle – for example expensive cars or large quantities of cash - to entice young people. Increasingly, money mule recruiters are making use of heavily encrypted instant messaging services to avoid detection.

The figures also show there has been a marked drop in those aged below 21 being recruited as money mules in 2020, with cases falling by 12 per cent to 8,791. This may be due to lockdown restrictions which have meant teenagers are spending longer amounts of time at home with their parents and have reduced opportunities for criminals to approach young people in person, for example outside schools and at universities.

The overall number of suspected cases of money muling activity across all age groups fell slightly in 2020 from a peak the previous year, but remain 27 per cent higher than in 2017.

UK Finance and Cifas are calling for fraud and economic crime to be included in the upcoming Online Safety Bill. This would make online platforms responsible for taking down fraudulent content, including social media posts or job adverts used to recruit people as money mules.

Katy Worobec, Managing Director of Economic Crime at UK Finance, commented:

“Criminals are cruelly preying on ‘Generation Covid’ and those struggling to find work at this difficult time, by using fake job adverts online to recruit people as money mules.

“We would urge everyone to remain cautious about any offers of quick and easy money and remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

“At the same time, online platforms must take swift action to detect and take down content being used to promote money muling activity. Organised criminal gangs use money mules to launder the profits of their devastating crimes, including fraud, drugs smuggling and people trafficking. We all have a duty to stop them.”

Mike Haley, Chief Executive Officer of Cifas, said:

“Allowing your bank account to be used to transfer funds is illegal. Although transferring funds doesn’t feel like it’s doing any harm, the money you’re being asked to move often comes from scams and crimes committed against innocent members of the public.

“We’re now seeing more variations of this type of activity including mules being asked to buy cryptocurrencies or gift cards to mask the stolen funds, making it even more difficult for organisations to trace this money and return it to victims.

“Banks now have sophisticated technology to detect mule activity. When mules are caught, they can expect their bank accounts to be closed and face great difficulty in obtaining credit, mobile phones or loans in the future. It is vital that you keep your bank account to yourself and not be fooled into taking part in this illegal activity.”

UK Finance and Cifas are urging the public to stay safe by following the advice of the Don’t Be Fooled campaign:

  • Research any potential employer by conducting your own background checks and making sure their contact details are genuine.
  • Don’t respond to adverts offering large sums of money for minimal effort.
  • Be wary of job ads that are written in poor English with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.
  • Don’t give your bank account details to anyone unless you know and trust them.