Money mules may or may not be aware of the role they are playing in a crime, but the actions they take do serious harm to people like the Coles and millions of other innocent victims of online scams and frauds.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received more than 20,000 complaints in 2018 from victims of business email compromise alone. These victims reported losses of more than $1.2 billion.
“Mules are laundering money for people who have done some major damage,” said FBI Special Agent Yaqub Prowell, who worked the Coles’ case through the FBI’s Portland Field Office. “Who’s losing the money? It’s average people. It’s small companies.”
Aaron Cole will be the first to tell you how devastating the loss was. “The equity in the house was our way to move forward,” he said of the theft. “I put myself back 15 years.”
In the Coles’ case, the title company generously helped the family cover their down payment in exchange for Aaron Cole’s help alerting others about business email compromise. The title company was seeing homeowners hit with this crime despite the warnings about fraud and account security they put on every document they send to clients.
Aaron Cole, like many people, skimmed right over those messages in the mass of paperwork that accompanies the process of buying and selling a home. Cole said, “I grew up with computers. I know not to click on anything suspicious. Nothing about this looked suspicious.”
The title company hopes that a human face and a very human story about what can happen will make more people aware of the crime and on guard against it.
Prowell, who spent days tracking the path the Coles’ money made from bank to bank, was successful in seizing some of the assets and saving about 30 percent of the funds the Coles lost. But those assets, because of the legal process involved, would not have made it back to the Coles fast enough to save their home. “The quickest forfeiture process I’ve seen has been about 12 months,” said Prowell.