Criminals are paying cash-strapped students as young as 13 for access to their bank account details to launder “dirty money”, HuffPost UK has learned.
Thousands of young people have been targeted by gangs offering hundreds of pounds to use them as “money mules”, the City of London Police has warned.
In some cases, young people have been violently threatened, with fee-paying public school and foreign students being particularly vulnerable, according to experts.
The growing problem has prompted Operation Falcon, the Met Police’s fraud department, to send out warnings to parents through London schools after worries that school children were being approached outside school gates.
The letter, which was sent out last year, read: “This is either done by force or for a financial incentive. We need your support to help educate young people around this issue.”
Recent figures show the number of young people targeted by criminals to be “money mules” has increased by more than 26% since last year according to a fraud prevention service.
Cifas, which aims at reducing financial crime in the UK, said so far in 2018, 9,636 under-21 “money mules” were identified in the UK.
Now the organisation is calling for children to receive fraud education in the national curriculum as part of the personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education module with its Don’t Be Fooled campaign to deter young people from falling into the money mule trap.
A City of London Police investigation this month revealed how fraudster Michael Lanyuru, 24, had control of six Facebook accounts and an Instagram account he used in the recruitment of money mules.
Through social media, Lanyuru would advertise for bank “card holders” aged “15+” and post videos showing large amounts of cash.
Lanyuru told one 15-year-old boy that if he handed over control of his bank account and allowed between £800 and £1,000 to be paid through it, he would receive £300.
Another 13-year-old boy was told he would receive £1,000 for giving Lanyuru his bank card and PIN.
In total, nearly £36,500 was moved through different bank accounts belonging to 15 teenagers aged 13 to 19 years old between September 2015 and February 2017.
When he was arrested, Lanyuru was in possession of 13 bank cards including one bank card specifically for under 18s and a receipt showing the account balance associated with that card as £49,905.88.
After Lanyru was jailed for 21 months, Detective Constable Dominic Shaw, from the City of London Police, said: “Lanyuru knew exactly what he was doing in targeting these individuals on social media and exploiting their naivety for his, and other criminals, financial gain.”
HuffPost UK spoke to one former university student in Birmingham who sold his details to a drugs gang for a cut of the deposits which amounted to more than £10,000 over three months.
The 24-year-old IT graduate, who did not want to be named, said he accepted a one-off payment of £500 for allowing access to his Barclays current account.
He said: “A few of my friends had been approached and it seemed easy enough. I knew my account was being used to move dirty money but I needed the cash and it seemed a victimless crime.
“I was told to make several deposits of maybe a few thousand pounds at at time and then to take it out again or transfer to another account.
“This went on for about six months until I graduated and then they just stopped contacting me. The bank didn’t get suspicious but it was a stressful time and I wouldn’t recommend getting involved. I was afraid I’d get drawn into more serious crime.”
On behalf of the Home Office-led Joint Fraud Taskforce, Cifas recently launched new lesson plans with the PSHE Association to educate young people about the seriousness of money laundering.
The lesson plans also provide young people with an understanding of how to keep themselves safe from online scams and identity fraud more widely.
Sandra Peaston, Cifas assistant director, added: “We are trying to prevent young people from getting involved in something that could end up being quite damaging.
“Not just the repercussions of laundering money but getting involved in organised crime can get very nasty.”
Peaston said criminals were advertising on social media, offering cash if youngsters allow them to use their bank accounts.
Cifas is also urging banks to do more to provide information to young people when they first open an account to warn them of the implications of becoming a money mule.
Detective Inspector Craig Mullish, from the City police’s money laundering unit, said: “We are aware that students are being targeted as money mules.
“Their role is to collectively move monies around, hopefully under the radar, so a money mule will open a bank account, maybe pay in or have paid into their account a few thousand pounds, collectively in excess of the billions that’s laundered through the UK every year.”
He added: “Students, who have no criminal connections whatsoever, are also finding themselves drawn into the illicit business of money laundering. Their bank accounts are literally being hijacked.”
Criminologist Craig Kelly, of Birmingham City University, said then practice was linked to the “county lines” drug dealing phenomenon where established city-based gangs fan out to the shires and rural areas to attract new customers.
Kelly said: “In this age of austerity vulnerable young people have been increasingly targeted by county line gangs not only to sell drugs but to launder cash in their bank accounts.
“The hard cash generated from county lines is enormous and crooks have a major problem in banking it.
“I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of public school children in middle class suburbs being threatened into laundering cash for gangs. It’s a growing problem and will only get worse as financial institutions crack down on money laundering.”
Security and Economic Crime Minister, Ben Wallace, said: “Protecting young and vulnerable people from becoming victims of fraud or financial harm is a key priority for this Government and I welcome the new lesson plans which will be vital in giving young people the confidence to spot a fraudulent approach.”