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How do Latvian youths become illegal money mules?

Money muling, or receiving (illegally acquired) money from a third party and transferring it on, can sound enticing as a way to earn easy money, and Latvians, particularly youth, are also susceptible. Latvian Television's "Forbidden Method" (Aizliegtais paņēmiens, AP) attempted to examine how youth are dragged into the scheme and what the consequences can be.

Artūrs' and Jurijs' stories

Two young men who have been involved in money muling and were caught after told AP about their experience. 

Artūrs is currently 20 years old. 

LTV: Who offered it to you?
Artūrs: Acquaintances of acquaintances.
LTV: What did they initially say?
A: They said, help us transfer money, we'll transfer it to your account, and we'll pay. [..] EUR 7,000 was transferred to my account, close to EUR 7,000. And I got EUR 250 out of that.

Jurijs is now 19, but he was involved in the scheme at 16. 

J: The total amount in my account was EUR 30,000.
LTV: Were they there with you?
J: Yes, with a car, so they can get to the ATMs. We went to one ATM, I raised my withdrawal limits through the phone, took out EUR 15,000, then we went to the next, also withdrew the cash, and that was that.

The cash withdrawals usually take place late at night and on weekends and holidays. "So that there is a smaller risk that the transaction is stopped and the bank reacts. [..] Why at midnight? Two days' limits can be used then, [..] before midnight and a minute after midnight," said State Policce Cybercrime combating administration deputy head Solvita Sļadze.

How are mules found?

One way different scheme organizers get to money mules is through word of mouth offers from a friend to a friend. Other forms are also common today with advertisements in closed groups on the Telegram communication site.

Transfers of money take place through companies such as Revolut, Wise, Paysera and others that are not quite commercial banks but legally offer to set up accounts and transfer money. They are especially loved by fraudsters because accounts can be opened remotely, quickly, and easily. These accounts are most often used when money needs to be withdrawn not immediately at the ATM but to extend its transfer chain.

Caught and punished

In such schemes, the number of money mules is usually large. Tens of people tend to be recruited for one group. For example, the criminal group in which Artūrs had become a mule ran for nine months with a hundred episodes of crime. The entire criminal group was detained, with mostly 16- to 24-year-olds as money mules.

Groups of money mules tend to vary depending on the circle of recruiters' acquaintances. Artūrs was also asked to recruit others. "I was asked, I said nobody agreed. But I never offered anyone."

"I got a letter from Swedbank asking me to come to explain where that amount of money came from. I started calling those acquaintances and they [said], well, make something up. [..] I made up a story, I signed, clearly, the bank didn't believe me," Artūrs said.

The bank closed the account and Artūrs thought it was over. But then one day the police came too. "Came to the declared address and said, "get dressed, you're coming with us," he said.

For Artūrs, the case ended with a plea deal. The penalty is 280 hours of community service. "I worked at a retirement home at first, cleanup work, raking leaves. It's not hard but it gets really boring," he said.  Alongside it, there is a criminal record in his biography.

Such transactions are becoming increasingly visible to commercial banks and are receiving attention. "The total number of reports being provided to the Financial Intelligence Service is increasing. It should be noted that banks are also improving their systems, and their ability to catch and report such cases. [..] The worrying thing is that young people are being used, which of course affects the future of these people, […] the possibility of doing certain jobs – working for the bank, financial institutions and other institutions, where the reputation aspect is also very important. You can ruin your entire future,” said Kristaps Markovskis, head of the Latvian central bank (Bank of Latvia)'s money laundering prevention administration.

Besides reputation, there are working restrictions related to criminal convictions, for example, one cannot work in public administration, in banks, cannot work as a police officer, and cannot form a military career in the Latvian army.

Police officer Solvita Sļadze said that 16-year-olds who have become money mules do not think about their lives at all in their 30s. But a few years later they realize how big of a mistake they made.  Next to that is inconvenience because if the bank has blocked the account, you won't be able to open the account for a second time.

What are the penalties?

The Criminal Law on money laundering and illegal transactions of financial instruments provides for community services, fines, temporary imprisonment or a real prison sentence.

The “Forbidden Method” looked into some judgments of courts.

For example, in one case, person A entered into an agreement with the “SEB bank” to open an account, obtained all the access codes, and passed the account to person B. Next, EUR 2,694 was deposited to that account, which person A tried to transfer. In this case, unsuccessfully because the bank intervened. Penalty: 250 hours of community service.

In another case, person A involved several acquaintances  – person B, person C and more, and had them hand over their account numbers for EUR 150. Various transfers of money took place. In return, a whole package of penalties were applied to person A: 420 hours of community service, a €2,500 fine, a ban on driving for 2 years, as well as a suspended imprisonment of one year and three months with a probation period of three years.

Criminal liability is provided for from the age of 14.

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