It is a heartless crime that preys on the lonely, the trusting and the vulnerable, but criminal masterminds add insult to injury by turning their victims into co-conspirators themselves.
Now law enforcement officials, banking industry professionals and consumer advocates are warning Americans of the risk.
“This is a new low that we are seeing across the board of becoming a money mule because (consumers) are unwittingly becoming an accomplice,” said Steve Bernas, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Chicago and Northern Illinois.
According to the BBB, fraudsters are signing on to dating sites and gaining the trust of those looking for love. The scheme can take months to build a relationship before the criminals begin asking for money for emergencies. Unsuspecting singles are further victimized by inadvertently participating in criminal activity as a “money mules” by opening bank accounts, cashing forged checks or illegally wiring money out of the country.
“Victims make the perfect money mules because they are in love. Their walls go down. They’re in love with these scammers, and these scammers tell them everything they want to hear,” said Bernas.
A BBB report estimates that in 2018, 20 to 30 percent of romance victims were used as money mules. More than $1 billion has been lost to romance scams in the last three years, the report said.
Banking industry professionals often spot the crime even before law enforcement.
“We want them to stop. We say, ‘this is a scam. You don’t need to get involved in this,’” said Tracey Clark, Senior Vice President at South Porte Bank. “But it’s hard to convince people.”
The problem has become so serious that the Department of Justice recently announced a crackdown on victims-turned-money mules. FBI agents and U.S. Postal Inspectors served more than 300 letters to individuals who recently served as money mules for fraud schemes, warning they could be prosecuted for their role in criminal activity, the DOJ said.
In January, an Oregon man pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering for serving as a money mule even after he’d been warned by federal authorities. The man said he did it for the “promise of love from the woman he met online.”
“(Fraudsters) actually have them so brainwashed that they believe everything that they are saying and that everything they said is true,” Bernas said.
The BBB said the best way to protect yourself of loved ones from becoming a money mule is to not fall for a romance fraud by not rushing into online relationships and by analyzing profiles to look for repeated phrases or misspellings.
Red flags include opening a bank account or giving access to an existing accounts; receiving packages and reshipping them to another location; picking up money at Western Union or MoneyGram and sending them elsewhere.