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DIGGING DEEPER: FBI warns of COVID-19 money mule scams

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TUCSON (KVOA) - The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has warned people about fraudsters who are taking advantage of the uncertainty and fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to steal victim's money and access personal and financial information.

FBI agents told News 4 Tucson that scammers have targeted Arizona in particular because of the number of older people living in the state.

They said scammers deceive people into unknowingly becoming their money mules.

A money mule is a street word scammers use that means someone who moves money for them. Fraudsters trick victims into moving cash into an account that eventually ends up in the hands of another fraudster. It's all part of a larger scam organization or network.

According to the FBI, when criminals obtain money illegally, they have to find a way to move and hide the illicit funds. They scam other people, known as money mules, into moving this illicit money for them either through funds transfers, physical movement of cash or through various other methods.

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept many people at home, isolated and lonely. Agents said scammers are preying on that loneliness by targeting people and creating fake online relationships or employment opportunities to gain their trust.

As a result, money mules are often targeted through online job schemes or dating websites and apps.

The FBI said, "acting as a money mule—allowing others to use your bank account, or conducting financial transactions on behalf of others—not only jeopardizes your financial security and compromises your personally identifiable information, but is also a crime."

You can protect yourself by refusing to send or receive money on behalf of individuals and businesses for which you are not personally and professionally responsible.

Contact authorities immediately if you suspect that you are being targeted.

The FBI has advised people to look out for the following schemes:

Work-from-home schemes

Watch out for online job postings and emails from individuals promising you easy money for little to no effort. Common red flags that you may be acting as a money mule include:

  • The “employer” you communicate with uses web-based services such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Outlook, etc.
  • You are asked to receive funds in your personal bank account and then “process” or “transfer” funds via wire transfer, ACH, mail, or money service businesses, such as Western Union or MoneyGram
  • You are asked to open bank accounts in your name for a business
  • You are told to keep a portion of the money you transfer

Individuals claiming to be located overseas asking you to send or receive money on their behalf

Watch out for emails, private messages and phone calls from individuals you do not know who claim to be located abroad and in need of your financial support. Criminals are trying to gain access to U.S. bank accounts in order to move fraud proceeds from you and other victims to their bank accounts. Common fictitious scenarios include:

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

If you believe you, or someone you know, has been solicited to be a money mule, please contact your local FBI field office. To report suspicious activity, please visit the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.

Alexis Berdine

Alexis Berdine is an Investigative Multi-Media Journalist at KVOA.

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