Nineteen-year-old Ciara was out walking with a friend in Ballyfermot when a local guy she knew approached them. He said he needed a bank account. Urgently.
“He asked me for my bank card. We were like, ‘Why?’ He was saying, ‘I lost mine and my friend wants to transfer money into my account’. He was saying he’d have it back to us in about five minutes. I was like, ‘I don’t know’.”
Ciara claims there was nothing in it for her as she wasn’t offered money. She agreed, she says, because she knew the guy, although she didn’t know the five or six others with him.
She handed him her card, and he gave it to one of the others who in turn put it through what she describes as a scanner. She keyed in her pin number, and within minutes almost €10,000 had landed in her account.
“They said, ‘Now we have to get the money out, quickly’.” And she would have to help them.
That was when it dawned on her she was in trouble.
She says the men organised taxis and brought them into Dublin city centre. They then drove Ciara and her friend to several banks and ATMs.
She was sent in to one bank to withdraw cash while they waited outside. They gave her instructions to request the money in pounds instead of euro. The most she was allowed to withdraw was €2,000.
They took her to ATMs to make multiple withdrawals of €500 each time, she says — until she got a notification that her account was locked.
After that, the men disappeared with the cash they had managed to get from her account.
She and her friend went home and started panicking. They had managed to buy expensive mobile phones.
Ciara says she was desperate to get the money out of her account any way she could. “I knew they were dangerous,” she says.
A year later, the law caught up with the women. Gardaí turned up at Ciara’s friend’s family home at the crack of dawn. Next, they came for her. Both have cooperated with gardaí.
Earlier this year, Ciara stood nervously before a judge in Dublin District Court and pleaded guilty to two counts of money laundering. Luckily for her, she says, CCTV cameras supported her account of men lurking around each time cash was withdrawn.
The court heard she was acting under the influence of others and that there had been duress.
Ciara, which is not her real name, asked not to be identified as her case is still before the courts. She desperately hopes to escape with the Probation Act and avoid a criminal record.
“It was a big thing to go through. I would be someone who’s very afraid of anything like that. I would never ever have got into trouble like that. It’s something that I would have lost sleep over,” she says.
“I nearly lost my job over it. I would never ever do anything like that again.”
Ciara is not the first money mule, and she is far from being the last.
In Kerry, gardaí recently uncovered a network of 51 suspected money mules
when they raided the home of an 18-year-old.
There, they discovered bank cards and account details belonging to 51 young people. They identified around €70,000 — thought to be the proceeds of international invoice redirect fraud — which had gone through their accounts, a figure that has since increased.
The youngest was 16, most were in their late teens or early 20s and the oldest was 24. Some were working, some were students, some were still at school. They had one thing in common — a connection to the 18-year-old, who is now suspected of recruiting them.
They are among an estimated 1,000 people — mostly aged 16 to their early 20s — in nearly every county in Ireland who are being investigated for, unwittingly or otherwise, laundering money for criminals.
In security circles they are known as “money mules”, people who help international crime gangs hide their stolen money in legitimate bank accounts. Many are recruited via Snapchat or social media, others through their own social networks, with offers of €300 or €400 for the use of their bank accounts.
All face possible convictions under the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Act.
Arrests are happening on an almost daily basis as the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) cracks down on online fraud and cyber crimes from the bottom up, as well as from the top down.
The bureau’s Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan says: “My strategy is that by arresting them for committing a crime, it will send a message out. There is certainly a belief among some of them that this is not really a crime. There is a very ambivalent view of it.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Pat Lordan, who heads the bureau, and Det Supt Cryan are running at least 40 investigations into various online frauds.
“If they are arrested, the message will go out that suddenly there are consequences to their actions,” Det Supt Cryan says.
Those consequences are serious.
“It is one of the worst convictions they can have, because they are prosecuted under the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Act.
“It means you won’t get a visa to the US. You won’t get a visa to Canada.
“You will not pass vetting tests. You will not be allowed to be the treasurer of your local GAA club. You won’t get on the school’s board of governors. You won’t get a job with a bank or a financial institution.
“Your credit rating will be impacted, which will impact on getting mortgages or loans. You are destroying your future with these convictions.”
Money mules are at one end of a spectrum that stretches all the way to organised cyber crime affiliates in eastern Europe and the notorious Black Axe organised crime group, which operates out of Nigeria but has been implicated in fraud and other crimes worldwide.
The recent successes of the garda clampdown on the Irish-based suspects organising the money laundering for international gangs has shed new light on how these mobs operate.
Phones seized from suspects have revealed instructions texted by unseen bosses in Nigeria. “We need a bank account for 200k,” one message read. Another was: “Can your account take 150k.” That is where the money mule comes in.
Technology is now so adept at detecting fake documents that it has become harder to open bank accounts without genuine ID. Increasingly, criminals need access to legitimate bank accounts to cash out their stolen funds.
“You need the money mule to cash out the fraud,” Det Supt Cryan says.
They participate for reasons, but usually it is “easy money, naivety or greed”. Hardly surprising, then, that the average age of an Irish money mule is 19.
A whiteboard in Det Supt Cryan’s office details the 40 policing operations targeting cyber frauds of one type or another. Operation Skein is one of the biggest, a sprawling investigation that started when businesses were sent emails tricking them into paying invoices into bank accounts set up by the fraudsters.
Detectives have identified hundreds of Irish money mules connected with Operation Skein alone.
They are often the first link in the chain to come to investigators’ attention. Banks freeze accounts and notify gardaí when they grow suspicious of transactions. The transfer of money from one account to the next almost invariably leaves a trail — back to the mule.
Others are identified when their bank cards are recovered in garda raids.
In the past two years, about €6m has been stolen from AIB and Bank of Ireland, most of it from private current accounts. Nearly all of that passed through mules’ accounts.
Gardaí are investigating employees in three banks who have been linked to money mule accounts, one of whom is suspected of accessing personal data.
The fear is criminals are exploiting young people. Young women, in particular, are vulnerable, drawn into relationships by money mule recruiters. Women have also told gardaí they were being blackmailed, forced to hand over their bank accounts to prevent compromising photos being published online. Gardaí are investigating theses claims.
In Det Supt Cryan’s experience, however, many mules are “compliant”, in that “they knowingly or recklessly allow their accounts to be used for money laundering”.
“When we arrest young people quite a few say they lost their cards. It seems to be an initial default position — and we believe they’re told to say that,” he says.
What they often do not realise is that they become cogs on the crime wheel.
“That boat organised by human traffickers that goes from Africa to Turkey, that boat is paid for by the proceeds of fraud. And 9/11 was part financed by fraud.
“If we can cut off the money mules, we are disrupting the criminal organisation’s ability to make money.”