As Interpol says Ireland is one of a number of countries being specifically targeted by international cybercrime gangs, and gardaí warn thousands of people’s bank accounts are being used to launder money, Prime Time speaks to a convicted ‘money mule’.
Seán was 21 years old when he made what he describes as a stupid mistake.
Seán, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, gave a friend his banking details, including his login, password and bank card, for what turned out to be money laundering.
“I was contacted by somebody who I regarded as a friend and they asked if they could use my Revolut account, and I said ‘sure look, what’s the harm’,” he told Prime Time.
“I thought he was shopping or something. I suppose I was very naïve at the time.”
His friend told Seán to stay off his account for a day or two so he could use it, and promised him €50 or €100 in return.
Seán knew something dodgy was going on when he went back onto his account and saw the amount of money that had entered and left his account.
“In total, through separate transactions, it was €5,000. It was into my account and straight back out into a different account. What he had done was a smishing attack.”
Smishing, a term coined from “SMS” and “phishing”, is fraud that relates to scam texts luring people into sharing their banking or financial information.
Crimes like this are prevalent right across the world, but gardaí have taken an active role in pursuing criminal moneys stolen from or funnelled through Irish bank accounts.
Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau said there are “thousands” of money mules like Seán in Ireland.
A money mule, he said, is “somebody who allows their bank account to be used by criminals to launder money”.
“The mule does the heavy work, he does the heavy loading for somebody,” he told Prime Time.
The mule typically uses their own bank account or opens a new bank account on behalf of the gang.
“Money from what we call cyber enabled frauds is laundered through those accounts,” Det Supt Cryan said.
“There’s well over €50m that has been stolen abroad and laundered through bank accounts in Ireland.”
Money mules are just one part of a huge web of criminal conspiracies involved in cybercrime.
Some estimates put the amount of money stolen by cybercrime not just in the billions, but in the trillions.
Where criminals have no respect for borders, Interpol has been coordinating the international police response to cyber thefts and cyber scams.
Stephen Kavanagh, Interpol’s Executive Director of Police Services, said Ireland’s economic and technological advances have made it a target for international financial fraudsters.
“It’s not just a financial hub now, it’s a data centre for Europe and beyond. And sadly, the fraudsters and cyber criminals see that success and they go after anywhere in the world where they think they can get the maximum amount of money,” Mr Kavanagh told Prime Time.
As police forces across the world follow the money, they are finding more and more people who were never previously involved in crime, but have been duped into becoming, or have knowingly become, money mules.
Money mules are controlled by criminals who are known as ‘mule herders’. Typically, a herder may have 30 or 40 money mules working for them.
The herders in turn answer to facilitators who in turn answer to the very top of organised crime gangs operating cyber scams. The leaders of those gangs can be based anywhere in the world.
“Anyone can become a money mule,” said Niamh Davenport from the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland.
“People being affected by the cost-of-living crisis may be tempted to become a money mule as a bit of easy cash. But the main age group that we’re seeing being impacted is 18 to 24-year-olds and even some as young as 14 as well,” she told Prime Time.
Gary Warner from the University of Alabama is an expert on cybercrime gangs and said money mules are prevalent globally, but also in Ireland.
“Ireland does seem to be a significant source for them. I can’t say why. But it may be that you’re perceived to have less strong penalties for financial crime than some other countries,” he said.
For Seán, a young man who had no criminal convictions, his world changed when gardaí came to his house while he was taking out the bins one morning. He was arrested on suspicion of money laundering.
“I had to go down to the garda station with them, do interviews. I had to spend some time in the cell, which, you know, was not an experience I’d ever like to repeat again, it wasn’t very pleasant,” Seán said.
Reflecting on what brought him to the attention of gardaí, Seán said he never thought allowing someone to use his bank account without question was so serious.
“I suppose the attitude I may have had would’ve been ‘sure if, I don’t know, can’t hurt me,’ you know? But again, that didn’t help me then when the guards were at my door,” Seán said.
Ms Davenport said the money being laundered by money mules on behalf of organised crime gangs is defrauding “your granny, your aunt, your uncle, businesses in your area, and then that money is being used to fund things like drug trafficking, human trafficking, organised crime”.
“I don’t think young people realise how serious it is. I don’t think they understand where this money is going and what it’s actually funding.”
The increase in people using online banking in recent years has meant more opportunities for criminals to operate in that virtual space. With billions being defrauded worldwide, ever resourceful criminal gangs turned to teenagers and young adults to either trick, cajole or entice into criminality.
However, Det Supt Cryan said the money mule phenomenon exploded in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Prior to that a lot of false passports were being used to open bank accounts. People were flying into the country and opening bank accounts, but of course, that all stopped during Covid — flights were cancelled, banks were closed.”
As our lives went online during the pandemic, so too did scams. Online frauds increased dramatically during Covid from romance frauds to investment frauds.
There was a huge recruitment online and through social media, Detective Superintendent Cryan said.
“It was advertised to young people as a way of making easy money, helping somebody who couldn’t open a bank account. A lot of young people were recruited through what we call friends, real friends and online friends or people they meet at parties, people they meet through social activities,” he said.
January is a tight time money-wise for many and a timely reminder that money mules are being recruited at an ever-growing pace.
The first six months of 2023 saw an almost 50% increase on moneys being funnelled through mule accounts, according to Ms Davenport.
“We saw over 2,600 cases being identified by the banks. With this we saw €17.5 million that actually transferred through Irish bank account,” she said.
The main group being used as mules are 18-24-year-olds, people who might be in college, Ms Davenport said.
“It’s expensive to get books, college fees, different things like that. College students may be tempted to go into it and say once or twice I’ll make €200, €300 and I’ll be able to pay for the books or whatever it is, their transport ticket for example. But it’s not that simple and it’s not that easy to get out of either,” she said.
Not only is Ireland a source for money mules, it is now also a destination for some international gangs.
“The gangs are international, what we call transnational criminal organisations. They have footprints all over the world. They cooperate with each other, they help each other, they give advice to each other,” Detective Superintendent Cryan said.
Interpol has visited Ireland to study the pro-active approach to following the money trail, as shown in Operation Skein, a precursor to Interpol’s Operation Jackal, which has followed money related to crimes allegedly committed by members of the Black Axe international crime gang.
“What these organisations want to do is have a victim in one continent, the data in another, and the crypto currency or the money operating in another location. They feel that makes it difficult for local police to investigate,” said Mr Kavanagh.
Black Axe originated in west Africa, but now operates globally. Gardaí said in 2022 that more than €64m has been laundered through Ireland by international crime gangs, such as Black Axe.
Last August, gardaí investigating the gang’s operations seized a Range Rover from a mule herder in Tallaght, bought, it is suspected, with the proceeds of cybercrime. They also seized passports, 30 mobile phones, and bank cards and details.
Black Axe is a worldwide organisation operating in a number of countries, said Mr Warner.
“We know of zones in many different cities such as Los Angeles or Dallas, Texas or Atlanta, Georgia. But we also know that they’re in London and Manchester and in Dublin,” he told Prime Time.
“In almost every country, the only criteria is you have to have access to online banking. If there’s access to online banking, there’s almost certainly a presence of the Black Axe in that country. We know they are in at least 29 different countries,” he said.
In the last 18 months, Interpol has frozen £500m believed linked to cyber criminals.
“Police will never solve this type of crime on their own. We need to work with the tech sector, we need to work with the banking sector more effectively to look at these different datasets across the world,” added Mr Kavanagh from Interpol.
Banks have obligations to report fraud crimes to the gardaí, they have partnerships with the gardaí and supply them with information, according to Detective Superintendent Cryan.
“The banks do a lot of work to try to prevent the money flows, to try and prevent money mules,” he said.
“The biggest thing that the banks can be doing is actually monitoring people’s transactions. And we do this on a regular basis as part of ongoing due diligence and as part of ongoing financial crime prevention,” said Ms Davenport.
Online banking service Revolut told Prime Time that over a third of its staff worldwide are now dedicated to fighting fraud. Other banks are also on high alert.
For convicted money mule, Seán, his experience in the court system was “eye-opening”.
“It made me realise that I definitely don’t want to go through that ever again. It was very scary, it made me very nervous. It made me feel like somebody, I wasn’t, if that makes sense,” he said.
When Seán appeared at a Circuit Criminal Court, he brought €5,000 in cash to give back to whoever had lost it, but it turned out that they had been reimbursed by the State.
He took an early guilty plea to the charges against him.
He added: “I was very lucky to receive what I received. I was given a one-year suspended sentence. I’ve a steady job.
“I had no need to, to involve myself in this. I feel like if I had known it was a crime, I wouldn’t have been involved at all.
“The judge showed me leniency, and I’m very happy that he did, you know, because I could be sitting inside the cell right now.
“My message to anyone is, especially people in my age group, is just, if there’s no need for it, don’t do it.”
Watch the full report, by Security Correspondent Barry Cummins and Producer Colm Kirwan, on the Thursday 4 January edition of Prime Time on RTÉ One or RTÉ Player at 9.35pm.