Police Scotland has written to secondary schools across Scotland to alert teachers and parents that teens are increasingly being recruited by gangs to sift their illicit funds through the youngsters’ bank accounts.
The warning follows recent inquiries into ‘vishing’ fraud, where individuals are hoodwinked into sharing financial information over the phone, that have revealed this worrying trend towards using children to launder money – an act that can carry a 14 year prison sentence. Often, young people are unaware of the penalties or the illegality of this behaviour.
Earlier this month, 29 people, including nine teenagers, who were believed to be working as money mules, were arrested and charged. Cifas, the UK fraud prevention service, has forecast figures due to be released next month will confirm a further rise in 21-year-olds involved in the activity.
DI Graeme Everest, of Police Scotland’s organised crime and counter terrorism unit (OCCTU), warned parents that “across the country, young people are increasingly being asked by fraudsters to receive and send money through their own bank accounts”. He added that, not only are children being targeted online, they are also being approached at youth clubs, sports centres and outside schools.
According to Everest, criminals are also leveraging social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp to send group invitations promising “easy money” and “investment opportunities” to trick youngsters into thinking they are participating in a legitimate financial occupation.
Everest said: “There is usually one individual within the organised crime gang whose role it is to recruit: they do the adverts and make sure they have a number of people ready to be used at a specific time. At the same time as the fraudster is committing the crime, they’ll be in contact with the mule herder who will then be running the mules around various money service bureaus or outlets in order to get them to cash out the money or buy high-value items with it.”
Everest urged parents to be wary of young people making unusually large transactions, and to be aware of changing in purchasing behaviour. “Mules will often be asked to buy watches, computers, telephones, iPads, anything that can be sold on for a specific value,” he said.
“The fraudsters tend to change the products they are using to commit the fraud regularly for fear of being traced, so if they then get a computer that’s been bought by a mule it’s untraceable back to them.”
In the first nine months of 2018, there has been 26% increase in the number of 21-year-olds implicated in money-mule activity, according to Cifas data. Simon Fell, director of external relations at Cifas, said: “Social media is exacerbating the issue, with ‘get rich quick’ schemes, fraudulent WhatsApp groups and other techniques increasingly targeting younger demographics.
“A popular method of recruitment is inviting young people to join WhatsApp groups, and then asking them for access to their accounts or to provide their card details. If they decline, they are then asked to leave the group. In some cases gangs have threatened the mule and their family when they have tried to back out.”
Police Scotland has not contacted any of the social networking sites involved directly, however forces in England and Wales have already done so, according to UK Finance and the trade association for the financial services sector. Referring to social media networking sites, Everest said: “It is a very difficult thing to regulate because as soon as one advert is taken down another will appear in its place.”