Typically, when scammers target their victims, they aim to con them out of money or derive other financial gains. However, some scammers are not after your money. They are after your identity and trust.
Instead of soliciting money, they might offer you money. But there’s a twist. It’s all part of a sophisticated plan to make you do their dirty work. Their aim is to trap you in a muling scam. If you fall for it, you could be in trouble with law enforcement, even as a victim. Here’s how a muling scam works and how to avoid it.
What Is a Package Muling Scam?
A package muling scam is a scam tactic used by internet fraudsters to facilitate their fraudulent activities while protecting themselves from direct exposure to law enforcement. It is usually hard to detect because it doesn’t work like other conventional scam tactics.
In this type of scam, the scammer does not make any request that appears likely to cause financial losses to the victim. Instead, they brand the scam either as a job offer, humanitarian service, or one-off assistance. This scam is rooted in a strategy to gradually sway the victim into serving as a middleman or mule for moving proceeds of criminal activities, be it money or physical packages.
How a Muling Scam Works
There’s no fixed strategy to trap victims in a muling scam. Different fraudsters employ different strategies depending on the resources at their disposal and the nature of the “package” they want to move.
Notwithstanding, there are three established muling scam strategies to look out for.
The Job Offer Approach
Some variants of muling scams come in the form of job offers. Criminals masquerading as a legitimate business entity might send you a job offer. The position they offer is typically different variations of a “money or package processing agent.” Your job description would be to receive money into your account and send it into designated accounts whenever you’re instructed to do so. It could also be to receive physical packages and forward them to a different address. They might offer you a fixed salary or a percentage of the money you process.
These fake companies typically claim to be overseas companies that cannot receive payment directly from your country. Since you’re resident in the country, you can help process the money and send it to their offshore account for a fee. Their reasons are usually compelling, and they typically have a lot of anticipated questioning lines well-rehearsed.
On the surface, it might look like a perfectly legitimate business—a way to make quick money online. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. If you accept their job offer, the money you’ll be processing is usually proceeds of scams. When scamming other people online, they’ll use your identity to spoof legitimacy, and funds from scams will be funneled to their account through yours. They might also ask you to forward the funds to them as gift cards or cryptocurrency.
The Dating Scam Approach
Some muling scams are intricately woven into an ongoing dating scam. Criminals convince their dating scam victims that they’re on a philanthropic mission and that they need their victim’s help. In most cases, they’ll claim they need to ship a package to some destitute children in Africa or some humanitarian mission anywhere in the world, and they’ll need your help to do it.
Being in a relationship with the scammer, the victims will naturally oblige. The packages will be sent to the victim for onward shipping to Africa or other destinations. While this seems legal, the illegality usually stems from the source of the packages. These packages are usually purchased using fake checks, stolen credit cards, or other illegal means.
Money Flipping Approach
This approach rakes in the most victims because of its tempting nature. The scammers will either start or hop onto a social media hashtag that advertises some quick money venture. They’ll ask unsuspecting victims to open either a physical bank account or any of the several digital wallets available and send them the login details.
Victims are typically promised quick cash once the scammer does a new trick they’ve recently discovered on the account. To make it appear risk-free, the scammers will tell their victims not to fund the account. To most people, this will appear as a risk-free, win-win scenario. Even if the scammer elopes with the account, they have nothing to lose. However, you have a lot to lose since your identity is tied to that account. Once you’ve sent them the account you created with your data, they’ll seize it and use it to funnel illegal funds.
Who Is at Risk?
Young internet users are particularly at risk. According to this Business Live report, nearly a third of money mule accounts reported to Barclays bank were owned by people under 21. Similarly, this Guardian report shows that one in every four respondents under the age of 25 had interacted with muling scam baits on social media. These baits are masqueraded in social media tags like #legitmoneyflip, #paypalflip, #cashappflip, and other similar hashtags.
Young people are usually targeted since they are more likely to be in need of quick money. They are also likely to be tech-savvy enough to follow through with the scammer’s instructions. However, the risk is not limited to young people. People of all ages looking for remote working opportunities and those on dating sites are also frequently targeted. Anyone can be targeted.
Consequences of Being a Victim
Internet fraudsters recruit mules to add layers of obfuscation between their victims and themselves. Sometimes, these fraudsters have chains of mules where one mule ships a package to another mule, effectively adding more distance between the criminals and the victim.
While this makes it incredibly hard for law enforcement to track them down, it makes muling scams an enticing tactic for fraudsters to adopt. When law enforcement agencies go hunting for criminals, the digital trail leads to your doorstep. Unfortunately, only a few people know about muling scams. You could be a victim and not realize it until it’s too late.
Unlike most online scams where you only suffer personal losses, being a victim of a muling scam can land you in jail. If your bank account or digital wallet is being used for muling activities, you’re, in theory, culpable in a crime. Also, if you unknowingly forward items that are proceeds of criminal activities to another location, you may also be indicted in the related crime.
Depending on your country and local laws, falling prey to muling scams could cost you thousands of dollars in fines, a dent in your reputation, or a lengthy jail time.
How to Protect Yourself
Use the following checklist when dealing with people online to protect yourself from being victimized in a muling scam:
- Never give out your private banking details to people you meet online, no matter how long you’ve been interacting with them.
- Be cautious of job offers that require you to open an account in your name and use it to process funds for entities you’ve only interacted with online. Try to check up the name and contact of the company online; if it’s a legitimate business, call to confirm that they are a way of the offer.
- Break contact with people on dating sites who ask you to receive funds with your digital wallet and transfer them to someone else.
- Be wary of giving assistance to any online humanitarian mission that asks you to forward physical goods to others elsewhere.
- Avoid suspicious social media offers that promise to double your funds or “top up” your digital wallet if you send in your login details.
Don’t Be a Mule
If you sense that you may already be head and shoulders deep in a muling scam; keep as many records of your transactions as possible, seek legal advice, and contact law enforcement immediately.
Don’t fall prey to malicious individuals, embrace internet safety best practices. Stay vigilant, be cautious of your interactions with people online. Don’t be a mule.
If you’re desperate for work or a better paid job you could be fooled employment scams. Here’s what to look out for and stay safe.
About The Author