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REPORT: Criminals pay Australian international students ‘up to $500’ for money mule accounts

By PAUL O’DONOGHUE, Senior Correspondent

GANGS are paying Australian money mules up to AUS$500 and commission for the use of their accounts, the country’s financial intelligence agency has said.

AUSTRAC yesterday issued new guidance to businesses to identify international students and temporary residents being used as money mules.

The organisation said criminal networks are “known to target international students and other temporary residents” as money mules, someone who receives and moves illicit finance.

“Some money mules are unaware this activity is illegal, often believing their facilitation of fund transfers constitutes legitimate employment,” AUSTRAC said.

In its guidance, which can be read in full here, AUSTRAC gave examples of possible mule activity which businesses should be aware of.

“Money mules will often conduct regular ATM cash deposits before rapidly transferring the money to money remitters, digital currency exchanges and internationally, predominantly to South Asia,” it said.

“These transfers are disproportionately higher than expected wages for a student and are often made to countries inconsistent with the account holder’s home country, or ethnic or cultural background.”

AUSTRAC said international transfers are often sent during high periods of account activity, with large amounts of money “being consolidated and sent on the same day or during a short period of time”. 

“Low value ‘test’ transfers have also been identified, usually under $10,” it said.

“Mules are paid anywhere between $200 to $500 for the use of their own accounts, and may receive about 10 per cent commission on funds received into nominal accounts they operate.”

Tim Stainton, a Detective Superintendent at the Australian Federal Police, said criminals are increasingly targeting foreign students to be recruited as money mules, where they are offered payment to receive money to transfer to another account.

“The money being transferred is often the proceeds of a crime which can then be used by organised crime syndicates to fund other criminal ventures like drug importations, cybercrime, terrorism and human trafficking,” he said.

“In Australia, participating in money muling is a serious criminal offence. If convicted, you can face anywhere from 12 months to life in prison.

He added that mules also risk breaching the terms of their bank and could lose access to their accounts.

AUSTRAC warned that bank accounts are also often purchased from students permanently leaving Australia.

“Purchases for plane tickets and travel-related expenses may be seen before activity temporarily ceases, indicating the individual has departed Australia,” the organisation said. 

“Shortly after, online banking profiles are used by the network to open new accounts, indicating they are under the control of the criminal network.”

The financial crime guide on money mules was developed by Fintel Alliance, a public-private partnership led by AUSTRAC.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Border Force (ABF) also contributed to the document.

AUSTRAC said the guide draws on intelligence collected and analysed by these bodies.

“Businesses should use a combination of the indicators in this new guide and their own transaction monitoring to identify suspected money mule accounts, and report their concerns to AUSTRAC by submitting a suspicious matter report,” it said.

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