18 Australians arrested, millions in stolen cash returned to victims in international money mule sting

“Money mules, even unsuspecting ones, should understand that they are complicit in serious crimes, and will be targeted accordingly.”

Eighteen Australians accused of being money mules have been charged as part of an international law enforcement operation that has seen more than $2.6 million in stolen money returned to victims across the country.

The AFP-led Joint Policing Cybercrime Coordination Centre (JPC3), which includes all state and territory police, coordinated the Australian arrests in partnership with state and territory law enforcement, as part of the annual Europol-led European Money Mule Action 9 (EMMA9).

EMMA9 is a joint international operation committed to identifying and disrupting money laundering operations.

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Money mules are people who are knowingly or unknowingly recruited by money laundering syndicates and then used by those syndicates to transfer stolen money in and out of their own accounts in order to make the funds appear legitimate to authorities.

The AFP used intelligence gained from other cybercrime investigations and last year’s EMMA8 investigations to develop targets for the two-month campaign.

The alleged Australian offenders, who were arrested as part of nationally coordinated investigations, were arrested by police in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

The alleged money mules were all arrested between October and November, 2023. The 18 Australians have been charged with various offences, including proceeds of crime offences, and could face a potential maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.

Internationally EMMA9 saw 27 law enforcement agencies arrest more than 1000 people, along with 474 alleged money mule recruiters identified. Nearly 32 million euros in losses were prevented, including $2.6 million in stolen cash returned to Australian victims.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Cyber Command Scott Lee said criminal syndicates attempt to attract money mules through a variety of forms, including through romance scams and fake job advertisements.

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“Recruiters will lie and tell potential money mule recruits that their actions are totally legitimate – but they are not. We want to warn Australians that if you are transferring potentially stolen money, you are committing an offence and could be looking at serious jail time,” Assistant Commissioner Lee said.

“Money mules could be transferring someone’s stolen life savings or house deposit. Criminals need legitimate bank accounts to transfer their illicit wealth into and they will use any tactic to dupe people into doing their dirty work.”

State and territory law enforcement also served 70 warning letters to people suspected of being money mules.

“Many of these investigations remain active and ongoing and the AFP, along with our law enforcement partners are not ruling out further arrests as a result of EMMA9 and the money mule crackdown we have seen this year,” said Assistant Commissioner Lee.

Police investigations also uncovered evidence of further cybercrime, including business email compromise, business investment scams and sextortion.

“These Australian arrests highlight that the AFP, together with its state, territory and international law enforcement partners has delivered a significant disruption to the organised crime syndicates seeking to use money mules as a way to hide their ill-gotten wealth.”

These alleged criminals are stealing from hardworking Australians and aiding these criminal operations. We are grateful that under joint international operation EMMA9 that millions of dollars belonging to Australian victims of cybercrime has been returned.

Victoria Police Detective Superintendent Tim McKinney, Cybercrime Division said organised criminals seek out unknowing Australians to utilise their legitimate Australian bank accounts to move money from a compromised account out of the country quickly.

“By routing it through a legitimate account held in Australia, it helps to obfuscate the flow of money, making it difficult to track,” Det. Supt. McKinney said.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that people transferring these funds are money mules, and these scams are a cover for criminals’ money laundering efforts. The funds that people are being asked to move are the proceeds of other criminal thefts, such as those facilitated by sextortions, text messaging and email scams, virtual kidnappings, fake job advertisements or even romance scams.

“Money mules, even unsuspecting ones, should understand that they are complicit in serious crimes, and will be targeted accordingly.”

Tasmania Police Crime and Intelligence Commander Ian Whish Wilson said working in partnership with AFP, last month Tasmania Police recovered $150,000 lost from a local business which had been the victim of a business email compromise scam.

“Tasmania Police also served three mule disruption notices to local residents, who had received money through online scams. We will continue to work with our interstate and international partners to disrupt this sort of illegal activity, and protect Tasmanians from harm,” said Commander Whish Wilson.

Queensland Police Service Crime and Intelligence Detective Acting Superintendent Kerry Lofdahl the said is committed to working with our law enforcement and industry partners to prevent, disrupt and respond to people engaged in money laundering.

“Money laundering is an insidious crime where the criminal orchestrators profit from using the personal bank details of Australians to advance other serious criminal activity including drug and human trafficking, and financing terrorist activity globally,” said Det. Acting Supt Lofdahl.

“The community need to proactively protect their personal data to ensure they do not unwittingly participate in money laundering and do not under any circumstances, allow third parties to move money through their accounts.”

NSW Police Force Cybercrime Command’s Detective Superintendent Matthew Craft said results achieved both nationally and internationally highlight the important relationships law enforcement have developed to prevent and disrupt money mules.

“EMMA 9 is one of the largest joint international operations of its type and the results achieved are outstanding,” Det. Supt Craft said. 

“The collaboration between the finance industry and law enforcement to stop money mules has never been better, so the message to anyone wishing to engage in this type of activity is to reconsider or be caught.”

 The AFP-led JPC3 is a partnership between the AFP, Australian State and Territory policing agencies, foreign law enforcement, government and the private sector that was established in March 2022 to effectively combat cybercrime impacting Australians.

If you are a victims of cybercrime you should report using ReportCyber at Cyber.gov.au.

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