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Europe Cracks Down on Money Mules: 178 Arrested in Global Operation

178 individuals have been arrested across Europe for money laundering activities. More specifically, the individuals were acting as money mules helping criminals move stolen money out of the country of theft to criminal bank accounts abroad. The action was coordinated by Europol and Eurojust with assistance from law enforcement agencies in 16 European countries, together with the FBI and the U.S. Secret Services.

A total of 580 money mules were identified during the action week: 14-18 November 2016. Of these, 380 suspects were interviewed by the national law enforcement agencies. 106 banks and private partners supported the action.

This was the second European Money Mule Action (EMMA) action week conducted under the umbrella of the EMPACT Cybercrime Payment Fraud Operational Action Plan. The first was in March 2016. At that time nearly 700 money mules were identified across Europe and 81 individuals were arrested after 198 suspects were interviewed by law enforcement agencies. The second EMMA led to the arrest of more individuals from fewer suspects, suggesting that Europol's targeting may now be more accurate.

Money mules are ordinary people duped by criminal gangs into helping transfer money into criminal accounts, often controlled by eastern European criminal gangs. Mules don't always realize they are being recruited for criminal purposes; but their action is nevertheless illegal and subject to both fines and prison terms.

The gangs recruit their mules with apparently legitimate job adverts through online posts, via social media, and by direct approaches through email and instant messaging. The job is typically for a 'money transfer agent', with successful applicants receiving a percentage of the money involved as a commission. Money comes into the mule's account, and is then transferred by the 'money transfer agent' to the criminal's overseas account. Targets for the gangs are frequently new immigrants, students and the unemployed. For the criminal, it is simply a method for laundering money via an expendable third party.

Europol says that more than 90% of money mule transactions are linked to cyber crime: from phishing, malware attacks, on-line shopping/e-commerce fraud, payment card fraud (pcf), business e-mail compromise (BEC) and on-line fraud. Apprehending the mules will not stop the cyber crime itself; but if recruiting mules becomes more difficult, it will at least make the successful crime harder. It is also a moral imperative to help citizens avoid inadvertently becoming criminals themselves.

"It is important to understand that money laundering may on the surface seem to be a small crime, but is orchestrated by organized crime groups," explained Michele Coninsx, President of Eurojust. "That is what we need to inform the public about. Therefore, the European Money Mule Action II is paramount to stop people being lured and recruited into aiding serious crime, to break this crime link, by being aware of who is behind this type of crime."

Perhaps the biggest value of these coordinated EMMA weeks is their scale. It is not difficult to identify a mule through ongoing financial records and transactions at a bank. The arrest of individual mules would hardly be news. However, the arrest of 176 mules following coordinated action by 16 European nations and involving the FBI and the Secret Service is altogether different -- and more likely to attract the publicity needed to prevent future mules being so easily recruited.

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.