The email caught the executive at a small Connecticut company by surprise in 2016. The company’s owner, he thought, was requesting a money transfer to pay for supplies from a new vendor. Hours after the money had been wired, the executive texted the owner to make sure he’d heard the request correctly. The owner replied, “I just saw your message about a wire transfer today. What is this about?” It was a fraud scam that that resulted this month in a 45-month prison sentence for one culprits. The case is part of a cycle of money laundering schemes that law enforcement officials are scrambling to slow through a combination of prosecution and public awareness, the Associated Press reports. It’s a trend involving “money mules” — people who unwittingly use their own bank accounts to move money for criminals for purposes they think are legitimate. The “mule” concept attracted attention with this month’s release of Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” a real-life tale of an elderly horticulturist who smuggled cocaine for a Mexican cartel.
The modern-day mules of most concern to the FBI are people who get themselves entangled in complicated, international money laundering schemes that cause millions of dollars in losses and show no signs of stopping. The FBI and international law enforcement agencies have stepped up efforts against the fraud. The FBI in June announced the arrests of 74 people, including 29 in Nigeria, for schemes targeting businesses and the elderly, and this month launched a publicity campaign called “Don’t Be a Mule.” The money mule cases are an offshoot of generic frauds such as schemes that dupe people into thinking they’ve won the lottery and can claim their prizes by wiring an advance payment or that trick the unsuspecting into believing a relative has been arrested and needs urgent bail money.