Criminals and money launderers are taking advantage of the COVID crisis to recruit innocent citizens to serve as a conduit for money, without them knowing they are – the Anti-Money Laundering Authority warns • How they operate, what to watch out for, and how far the phenomenon has expanded in Israel and around the world
What do particularly tempting and lucrative offers for working from home have in common, the beginning of a new and tumultuous romantic relationship, a significant lottery win and also a greeting from a Nigerian prince? All of these methods are part of the fundraising methods of “money couriers” for the purposes of money laundering and terrorist financing, in Israel and around the world.
Criminals and money launderers around the world are increasingly using Money Mules – “money couriers” for money laundering, with an emphasis on the past year (2020), taking advantage of the limitations of social distance and the economic crisis. In Israel, too, the Money Laundering Authority is warning about the phenomenon, and has even recently released a list of “red flags” for financial institutions and citizens, which include guidelines for detecting suspicious signs.Those money couriers are rowdy citizens – innocent people who are unaware that they are committing an offense. They receive funds for their personal account or for a straw company that they are asked to set up, pass them on according to the instructions given to them and their wages are usually paid through a commission. Their role in the chain is to help blur the source of the bleached money and its final destination.The issue has received increasing attention in recent months from international law enforcement agencies and financial institutions, and there is a widespread effort to seize global networks of money couriers and their operators. These networks are taking advantage of the COVID crisis and rising unemployment – among other things by addressing populations in economic crisis.
The method: “Work from home!”
The Anti-Money Laundering Authority in Israel, headed by Dr. Shlomit Wegman, has noticed that there is an increase in the phenomenon within our borders as well. Virtual (cryptocurrencies) and transfer them to another digital wallet. From the information collected by the Authority, online inquiries from money launderers from abroad to Israeli citizens arise in fictitious job offers, when in fact they intend to use them as “fooled” couriers.
Against this background, the Anti-Money Laundering Authority publishes a list of “red flags” for the general public and the financial sector. The authorities, of course, mark the criminals, but are more troubled by the money couriers who do not know that they have been “recruited.”
How do people become money couriers without being aware of it?
According to information gathered by the Anti-Money Laundering Authority, in the past year, criminal elements have taken advantage of social distance and work from home, and a considerable part of the courier recruitment process is done online. In this context, the “courier recruiters” use various methods – one of which is the “tempting job offer from home”. According to Europol, the same offers are usually made in remote communication (social networks, emails), including from foreign countries, offering jobs as a sales representative, administrative assistant, financial agent, management officer, software tester (QA), etc.
Online forums also sell “kits” to raise money couriers that include fake websites, ready-made wording and even office services for correspondence with victims.
Another recruitment channel is the “Romantic Outline”. An official report from the US Business Fair Authority shows that there is a 30% increase in 2018 compared to 2017 in attempts to raise money couriers in the US under the pretext of a “romantic” relationship. Recruiters invest a long period of time (in order to establish a relationship of trust with the victim) to transfer money for them, or alternatively to fraudulently rob him of money.
The well-known method of fraud known as the “Nigerian prince’s sting” has also become a ground for recruiting couriers. In this method, the recruiter makes an application, usually by e-mail, in which he presents himself as a person from a wealthy family who has difficulty moving his wealth from place to place and asks for the victim’s assistance in transferring the funds in exchange for a percentage.
Interpol: Operations to locate couriers
Interpol data show that the number of couriers found in the activity of exposing networks of money couriers has jumped by 575% in the last five years, while in the last operation conducted, 227 “recruiters” were also located.
The UK’s national risk assessment shows a 32% increase in the volume of money couriers exposed between 2017 and 2019 (to 42,482 cases). In the US, the US Department of Justice announces that during 2020 the number of couriers detected will increase by about 400% within a year.
An example of a significant-scale courier was recorded in June 2020, when an indictment was filed against a Nigerian citizen living in Dubai named Ramon Abbas, a social media anchor (over 2.5 million followers), who is considered one of the world’s biggest money launderers using “paddle” couriers. According to the indictment, Abbas recruited the couriers mostly through social media, mostly through Instagram. He is accused of laundering funds for North Korea as well. In a raid by the Dubai police on his home, $ 40 million in cash, 13 luxury cars and personal details of 2 million citizens from around the world he tried to defraud were seized.
An official report by the FATF, the International Task Force on Combating Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing, on Virtual Assets (VA) from September 2020, cited a case that occurred in South Africa when a branched money laundering network transferred an amount of about 12,000 Bitcoin units (equivalent Value at the time to $ 108 million) through various accounts of money couriers to the perpetrators of the crime.
In Israel: Exposing the Chinese Sting
And this is also happening in Israel. The Anti-Money Laundering Authority says that there is also active activity of the “money couriers” in Israel, and that Israeli residents receive inquiries, usually from foreign sources, while promising high incomes with a minimal investment of time.
Thus, for example, in one of the exposed cases, an offer was sent to Israeli entities by a Chinese entity, under the guise of an existing Chinese electronics company (apparently without its knowledge), to serve as a sales representative “from home” for a 10% commission. The same email was sent to sources around the world, including Israel, and contained real details of the company, except for the phone number that was changed.
The red flags of the Anti-Money Laundering Authority
To the general public: how to avoid becoming money couriers?
- Avoid performing financial transactions for someone you do not know
- Beware of a tempting job offer, with no experience requirements and a high reward
- Suspect a “romantic” relationship in which you are required to perform financial transactions
To The Financial Sector: How To Avoid Serving A Finance Courier Account?
- The customer significantly deviates from the normal conduct of the account
- The customer refuses to answer as to the source of the funds or provides illogical explanations
- Funds in the customer’s account are transferred to problematic countries
- The customer transfers money to people he does not know
- The customer opens several accounts in different banks at the same time
- The customer receives money from a suspicious “employer” (a company that does not exist).
By Ella Levy-Weinrab (Hebrew), March 10, 2021, published on Globes