Children as young as 14 being recruited as ‘money mules’, gardai say

Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau during a briefing on smishing, vishing and account takeover (Brian Lawless/PA)
Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau during a briefing on smishing, vishing and account takeover (Brian Lawless/PA)

Children as young as 14 are being recruited as “money mules” for sophisticated international organised crime operations, according to gardai.

Money mules allow criminal organisations to use their bank accounts to launder money obtained through fraud.

They are mostly recruited through social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat but some are convinced to act as money mules by peers.

Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau warned that money mules can be convicted of a money laundering offence.

“It carries a potential prison sentence of 14 years. But other than that, your home will be searched by the guards. You’ll be arrested, you’ll be photographed, you’ll be fingerprinted, you’ll have your DNA taken.

“If you’re charged and prosecuted, you may have to appear in court, it may be reported on, you may have your picture in the paper. Your bank account will be closed, other banks won’t entertain new applications. You’ll potentially be placed on a terrorism watchlist.”

He said it could have implications for obtaining loans, visas or jobs in the future.

“On top of all this, you may end up owing a debt to a criminal organisation.”

He also advised parents to talk to their children about the dangers of being a money mule and to watch out for signs of children “coming into money”.

He said other signs include children making expensive purchases, having new friends online or behaving secretive and anxious.

Detective Superintendent Cryan said there was “an explosion in recruitment” of money mules during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s going on in secondary schools. It’s going on with kids as young as 14 or 15 years of age. The average is around 19 to 20. We’ve also seen them in their 50s and 60s – rare, but you do see it.”

In a briefing with reporters, he added: “It is difficult to know if it is reducing or not. They [gangs] are still able to launder money, they’re still able to recruit money mules. There’s a new generation of kids.”

He said money mules are “essential” to the process of account takeover fraud, which is where an individual receives a text (“smishing”), call (“vishing”) or email (“phishing”) from a fraudster that appears to be from a bank, service provider, delivery company or government agency and aims to take over their bank account, devices or debit/credit card details.

Almost seven million euro was stolen through account takeover fraud in the first nine months of the year, down from 11 million in 2022 and 23 million in 2021.

Across all money laundering offences, 152 women and 366 men have been arrested so far this year.

In smishing attacks, fraudsters attempt to get individuals to click on a link in a text and insert their PIN.

This could be followed up with a call from the fraudster pretending to be from their bank.

The result is the fraudster takes over their account or adds a money mule beneficiary and makes online transfers.

Alternatively, they may get the person to pay a small amount, for example, a fake customs charge, with their card details and use these to make other purchases online.

In call-based vishing attacks, fraudsters typically phone the victim to tell them that they are “under investigation” for tax fraud and that they can resolve the matter by paying their bill immediately.

They may ask for their bank account details, credit card details or the victim’s PPS number.

Gardai said the criminals may encourage someone to download software, for example, AnyDesk, so they can take over their computer.

Detective Superintendent Cryan said common attacks involve tricking victims into believing they are dealing with their bank or Revolut, delivery services, eFlow tolls, Government departments or the gardai or service providers.

He said a new scam involves a “child in trouble” text where a scammer tricks parents by pretending to be their child using a new phone number and in urgent need of money.

While there have been more than 1,000 reports of account takeover fraud so far this year, gardai said it is down 48% compared to last year.

However, smishing and vishing reports in particular are up 20% year to date and Detective Superintendent Cryan said these types of fraud are “probably under-reported”.

People aged 40 to 60 are most likely to be victims, according to gardai.

Members of the public are advised to be wary of cold calls and texts, even if the text comes in the same thread as previous genuine messages from their bank.

Victims are told to change their passwords and pin codes and also report the fraud to their bank and gardaí.

Detective Superintendent Cryan said: “Practically everyone in the country has got a text that looks like it’s from a reliable source and yet it’s not – anyone can be a victim, regardless of age or where they live. And, remember Revenue will never call you to tell you that you are under investigation either.

“Our advice is always to be wary of any concerning texts or calls – just stop and think before you click on anything or show it to someone you trust for a second opinion.

“Never give away your personal data and if you have been a victim of account takeover fraud make sure you change your passwords and contact your bank as soon as possible and report it to gardai.”