Dec. 2 (UPI) -- Authorities in the United States and Europe separately announced they have taken action against thousands of money mules in a move to disrupt fraud scams.
U.S. and European law enforcement agencies conducted separate crackdowns on transnational fraudsters pilfering millions from victims by targeting their money mules, middlemen who transfer funds stolen from victims to their attackers.
The Justice Department announced the results of the third annual Money Mule Initiative on Wednesday, stating the two-month operation halted the illegal activities of 2,300 money mules working in every state in schemes including lottery fraud, romance scams, government imposter fraud, technical support fraud, unemployment and insurance fraud and others.
Some 2,000 money mules were served letters of warning and more than 35 people were criminally charged or arrested. Authorities also seized assets, including a 2019 Lamborghini as part of a business email scam, as well as aided the return of stolen funds.
Authorities said these transnational fraudsters often target the elderly and other vulnerable members of society and that not all money mules are aware their actions are abetting fraud.
"Money mules fuel fraud against some of America's most vulnerable populations," said Attorney General William Barr. "Without the help of these money mules, many foreign fraud enterprises find it difficult to profit off of U.S. victims."
Eight federal law enforcement agencies participated in the year's effort, which surpassed the 600 mules targeted in 2019.
"As this initiative demonstrates, the Department of justice is committed to disrupting money mule networks, taking actions against more money mules this year than ever before, in an effort to cut off the flow of funds from American consumers and businesses to transnational criminal organizations," Barr said.
In Europe, Europol, which targets serious and organized crime, announced Wednesday the arrests of 422 people, the disruption of 4,031 money mules worldwide and the identification of 277 money mule recruiters.
"While mules are recruited via numerous routes, such as direct contact or through email, criminals are more and more turning to social media to recruit new accomplices, through the advertisement of fake jobs offers, online pop-up ads and instant messaging applications," Europol said.
The sixth annual two-month operation European Money Mule Action included law enforcement agencies from 26 countries, resulting in 1,529 criminal investigations. With the help of some 500 banks and financial institutions, nearly 5,000 fraudulent money mule transactions were identified, preventing a loss of more than $40 million, Europol said in a statement.
Though COVID-19-related schemes have been reported, payment process compromise and romance scams were the most common, it said, adding that the use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin were on the rise.
Operation EMMA is part of the Netherlands-led EMPACT Cybercrime Payment Fraud Operational Action Plan, which combats online and payment card fraud.
In 2019, the fifth EMMA resulted in the identification of 3,833 money mules and 386 recruiters, of which 228 were arrested, and some $15.6 million was prevented from being stolen, it said.
"This campaign has resulted in hundreds of criminal arrests worldwide and justice for countless victims," said FBI Director Christopher Wray. "Today's announcement should send a clear message to those engaged in this type of criminal activity: They are not outside the reach of law enforcement, and the FBI and its partners will relentlessly pursue them in order to protect the American people."