Cybercriminals used students as mules to launder millions through Irish bank accounts

Cybercriminals have used college students to funnel millions of euros through hundreds of Irish bank accounts in the last three years.

Many of the students were acting “complicitly”, allowing their bank accounts be used to launder the cash in exchange for a few hundred euro.

Gardaí have identified 420 Irish bank accounts, through which €14.6m was laundered as part of the three-month European Money Mule Action (EMMA) operation.

Many of these accounts belonged to students. The crimes involved 165 victims, with gardaí carrying out 30 interviews, freezing 25 of these bank accounts and seizing €300,000 in cash and four cars.

Several people have been charged as a result of the three-month investigation at the direction of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

“For the Irish situations in the months of October, November and December, we have identified 420 mule accounts within this jurisdiction,” said Garda Detective Chief Superintendent Pat Lordan. “Those mule accounts were being used to transfer money for criminal networks mostly outside of the jurisdiction into this jurisdiction.”

This is the first time Ireland has taken part in the EU-wide sting operation, which has been running for four years.

Det Chief Supt Lordan said our anti-money laundering legislation has made it harder for criminals to open accounts here so they are turning to cash-strapped students to launder money for them. Students are approached either in a bar or online, by criminals known as “herders”.

“We’ve identified five herders, these are people who gather up people who work as money mules,” said Det Chief Supt Lordan. “They go into the college bar, they get on the social networks, they get on Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram.

They offer money for jam, but they forget to tell you one thing — you could end up with a criminal conviction if you do this.

“It’s not as easy as taking €200 from one of these people to allow €10,000 to go through your account — you could actually go to jail for that. We have charged a number of people, we’ve got directions from the DPP’s office in relation to this.”

The penalty for money laundering includes up to 14 years in prison and gardaí are urging parents to be vigilant about their children’s financial behaviour.

Although the 420 accounts were only identified in the last three months, gardaí estimate that millions of euro has passed through them over the last three years.

“The money that we can see that has been lost as a result of the transactions that we have seen is approximately €14.6m in a two- to three-year period, and that’s only the accounts that we have looked at in those three months,” said Det Chief Supt Lordan.

Of the 165 victims affected by the laundering, they could have fallen prey to an array of cyber crimes such as CEO or invoice redirection fraud. This is where a financial officer in a company receives an email, which appears to be from their CEO, asking them to pay an invoice or an amount of money to a bank account.

The bank accounts of the money mules, such as those belonging to Irish college students, are then used to split up this large sum into smaller amounts of between €5,000 and €15,000.

“Money mules are individuals who allow their own bank accounts to be used by criminals to launder the proceeds of economic crimes. A lot of this would relate to online fraud, such as invoice redirection fraud, phishing, romance fraud,” said Detective Superintendent Gerard Walsh of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau.

“All of those crimes, in order for them to be successful, they have to be able to transfer the money into their possession and they used what’s known as money mules.”

While the majority of the Irish bank account holders are complicit in the laundering, some also did so unwittingly, by replying to those well-known ads where you can “earn cash from home”.

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