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How people can unwittingly become “money mules”


Many people think of money laundering as an elaborate enterprise involving assorted organizations – sometimes seemingly legitimate ones – and professional criminals. They assume that anyone involved in money laundering knows what they’re doing and is aware that they’re breaking the law.

However, often money laundering scams involve innocent people who are tricked into laundering money (or becoming a “money mule,” in the government’s parlance) by scammers. They use different techniques to “launder” stolen money.

Red flags that you need to recognize

These money laundering scams typically involve the scammer sending the “money mule” money. Therefore, that’s the first thing to watch out for if someone you don’t know (or think you know but haven’t met) suggests doing that.

Often, people fall prey to these scams through people they met on an online dating site or elsewhere online. They often believe they’re in a “relationship” with this person who often lives (or claims to live) abroad. 

Sometimes, these people simply use their victims to get the money that they claim they need for an airline ticket to come to visit or for other expenses. However, others use their victims to launder money by sending them a check or gift card or a wire transfer of money and asking them to pass it along to someone else.

There are any number of other scams. Many simply involve sending money to a person or company and not getting whatever was promised in return. This often involves giving out your account information, which allows the scammers to do some real financial damage. 

However, if you think it can’t possibly be a scam because they’re sending you money and simply asking you to send it on or give them something of equal value, that could be a money-laundering scam.

What to do if you suspect illegal activity

If you suspect you’re the victim of a scam, you should cut off communication immediately and report it to your bank and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The longer it goes on, the greater your chances are of having law enforcement agents show up at your door. 

To them, you may look like an accomplice rather than a victim. If you’re in this situation, don’t assume that your assurances of your innocence will be enough to keep you from facing serious criminal charges. It’s crucial to seek legal guidance.

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