Do these advertisements sound familiar:

Interested in making same-day money?

Work part time from home and make up to $6,000 a month!

Become a virtual assistant, no experience necessary.

Jobs available at XYZ Shipping Co. Prior experience not required.

Odds are they do. I know I’ve seen them in emails, social media messages and even posted on utility poles across town. Hopefully, these types of advertisements give you a “something’s not quite right here” feeling. The phrases “same-day money,” “make up to $6,000 a month part time” and “no experience necessary or required” should tip you off that something is off. If it sounds too good to be true, it almost always is — and it could be a front for a money mule scam.

What is a Money Mule?

According to the American Bankers Association, “When criminals obtain money illegally, they need to hide or launder the source of the funds. One method they use is to look for people to transfer their money for them. Those people become money mules, and are used to move and launder the money.”

Money mule scams work in a variety of ways, most often involving job openings, online dating and prizes. I’m focusing on job-related scams because the U.S. saw an increase of this type of fraudulent activity during the pandemic, with criminals preying on those who had lost their jobs, many of whom reported feeling “desperate” to find work. Regardless of the method, the criminal’s goal is always the same — to get someone else to move their money so it’s difficult for law enforcement to track.

How Does a Money Mule Work?

To illustrate, let’s continue with the job-related money mule examples.

Let’s say you respond to an ad offering a job that promises same-day money. You interview with the “company” and are hired for the “job,” at which point, you will be required to provide your own bank account information as part of your employee orientation. Your “employer” will then use your account to make wire transfers. For example, they’ll wire you $3,000 under the guise of avoiding taxes or large transfer fees, then they’ll ask you to transfer $2,500 of that money to another location — typically somewhere overseas — and keep $500 for yourself as payment.

Or, you respond to a job opening for a shipping inspector. You’re interviewed and hired to inspect certain products, such as phones and other electronics. The “company” ships the products to your home, you inspect them, bundle them back up and use your own money to re-ship them to buyers, with a promise of a big paycheck at the end of the month. Suddenly, the company stops communicating with you. You don’t get paid, and you’ve shipped stolen goods to buyers who will sell them on the black market.

Whether the “company” has you wiring money, reshipping packages or even buying gift cards to pay others, your “job” has put money in the pockets of criminals and could lead to some very negative consequences, even if you were unaware of the illegal activity.

According to the FBI, money mules are categorized into three main groups:

  1. Unwitting – those who don’t know they are involved in a criminal scheme
  2. Witting – those who ignore the signs of criminal activity, even after being warned by bank personnel or others
  3. Complicit – those who are completely aware of their role as a money mule

Even if you are unwitting, acting as a money mule is illegal and punishable. The FBI states that “you could be prosecuted and incarcerated as part of a criminal money laundering conspiracy” and that “some of the federal charges you could face include mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft.”

Beyond that, you could also severely damage your credit and financial standing.

How Can You Avoid Becoming a Money Mule?

Absolutely anyone can become a victim of a money mule scam, but the FBI says some individuals are more at-risk, including elderly individuals, recent retirees, people who are looking for jobs, people who are looking for relationships, college students and people who are new to the U.S.

Criminals today are smart and tech-savvy. They know exactly what to do and say to make people believe them. Just always remember to:

  1. Research, research, research, especially when replying to job advertisements. Don’t rely on the information the company sends you. It could be fake, as well. Ask for a copy of the company’s business license/permit, then confirm its legitimacy. Search community groups such as the Better Business Bureau or local chambers of commerce, and visit your state’s Division of Consumer Protection to see if the company is a registered entity.

  2. Be wary of messages that promise you easy money with little or no effort.

  3. Be suspicious if messages contain poor grammar and spelling errors.

  4. Don’t give access to your bank account to anyone you don’t know and trust.

  5. Don’t purchase gift cards on someone else’s behalf.

  6. Never use your own bank account or open one in your name to transfer money for anyone else.

  7. Never send money to an online romantic interest even if they send you a check first. While we mostly talked about job-related scams, romance scams are just as prevalent these days.

What To Do if You Think You’ve Become a Money Mule

If you suspect you are being used as a money mule, stop communicating with the potential scammer immediately and contact Bank of Utah, your other financial institutions and local law enforcement. Also report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission. I know that can be terrifying to do or that you may feel embarrassed, but we all want to help you, and we can guide you on what steps to take next. By reporting your experience, you help yourself, and others who may be unwittingly involved in the same scam.

And again, always be aware of the red flags. If you have even the slightest feeling that something isn’t right, it usually isn’t.

Melissa Bernson is VP Regional Retail Banking Manager for Bank of Utah. She has over a decade of banking experience, including previously leading our Ogden-Corporate branch as branch manager.