The dark web, money mules, fake checks, and more

  • September 9, 2021

Many people fall victim to fraud each year and it’s disappointing to know there are people who actively devise ways to try to steal your identity, get access to your bank account, hijack your Social Security number, and more.

They want to do anything they can to make their own lives easier, not caring if yours becomes more difficult. But, have no fear: if you educate yourself on their methods, you’ll be able to identify a scam when you see one and avoid becoming a victim. And look at you — reading articles like this one is a great first step. Way to go!

We’ll discuss four items of interest today, beginning with the “dark web:”

1. What is the “dark web?”

The “dark web” is a digital underground with online sites, marketplaces, communities, and private forums where hackers, fraudsters, and cybercriminals operate and interact. The types of information that can be found on the dark web include info from data breaches with other people’s account numbers, malware networks, and all types of personal information.

This information is all for sale! Fraudsters have all sorts of strategies to get your information—Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, email passwords—and sell it on the dark web to the highest bidder.

So what can they do with this information? Well, they can steal your identity, or create new identities and have the identification documents to go with it, in a manner of minutes. Compromised card information can be used to create new cards, or credentials can be used online for unauthorized transactions.

Malware can be purchased to infect your computers. Information is used to target individuals for a fraudulent scam and turn them into “money mules” (we’ll discuss that further in point #2 below). This is just a small sampling of what they can do.

And now for the million dollar question: Why don’t authorities just shut them down? They do. But when one is shut down, another soon takes its place. Government agencies and private security companies continually monitor the dark web.

The most effective course of action is for you to hold your information close and learn to recognize a fraud when you see one. Ignoring (or better yet—reporting!) the schemes designed to trick you out of your personal information will give you the highest odds possible of not having your information up for sale on the dark web. You can do this!

2. Money mules

Another feature of interest is the concept of the “money mule.” Money mules are people who help scammers move stolen money, either knowingly or unknowingly. Think about that for a second: “unknowingly” means even honest, hard-working people looking for an extra buck could mistakenly get involved in helping with crime.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, “money mule scams” can happen in several ways. It often involves scams related to online dating, work-at-home jobs, or prizes. Scammers will want to send money to you, then ask you to send all or some of it to someone else.

They often want you to use gift cards or wire transfers. Of course, they don’t tell you the money is stolen or that they’re lying about the reason to send it. And there never was a relationship, job, or prize: only a scam. If someone is asking you to take or send money, and you don’t know them very well…just don’t do it. This way, you can avoid being inadvertently involved in a crime.

3. Common money-making scams

Some of the most common scams that are designed to victimize you, or your friends and family, are:

  • Bogus car advertising
  • Mystery shopping
  • Online loans
  • Fake check scams

A frequent money-making scam is bogus car advertising. Fraudsters place ads looking for people to advertise well-known products on their vehicles. A contract may be signed and a check is sent to cover costs for the installer or support team, and the rest for the consumer to keep for payment. But what’s crooked about all this is that the check is fake, and the victim is left to cover the amount of the check.

On to mystery shoppers. Now, mystery shoppers can truly be used by legitimate retailers to get reviews of products and services. In those situations, the shopper is reimbursed for the purchase, and typically keeps the product. Fraudsters take advantage of this employment opportunity by placing ads for mystery shoppers with the impression of making BIG money.

Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. Some fraudsters will ask for a fee upfront to be registered as a mystery shopper — this is a red flag. The fraudsters request the mystery shopper to purchase money grams, reloadable cash cards, or gift cards.

The victim is given detailed instructions to send the items or send photos of the back and front of the cards. This gives the funds back to the fraudsters before the check is returned as fictitious. Before the victim knows it, he or she may be unintentionally sinking deep in illegal activity because they ignored those red flags.

Another popular scam takes advantage of consumers looking for a loan to ease their financial worries. Typically, a fraudulent online loan offers quick receipt of the loan funds without a lot of red tape or credit history checks. The application process includes asking for the online banking credentials and/or account number to verify account balances (red flag). This allows them to set up a mobile method of depositing the fake checks.

Other fake check scams include sale of items or services, payment for employment or services, and even sweepstakes and lotteries. A tip for recognizing fraud is, in these cases, the consumer is required to return a portion of the funds by wire, gift cards, cash app, or bitcoin to pay for fees, taxes, or overpayments. Just don’t do it! If it seems too good to be true, or if it seems fishy in the least, don’t walk away: RUN!

4. Fake checks

Finally, with scams abounding, it would be beneficial for you to know tips for spotting a fake check:

  • Incorrect spelling or punctuation
  • Different fonts
  • The routing number doesn’t match the bank name (you can do a quick online search to verify what bank has which routing numbers)
  • A business logo that doesn’t look genuine
  • The check is out of state
  • The maker is a random name or entity, and doesn’t match the reason the check was received
  • The check appears washed out or altered

In most of these situations, the fake checks may otherwise look very real. Some have the appearance of being from legitimate businesses, or could be financial institutions’ cashier’s checks. Some scams we’ve seen instructed the victim to get a cashier’s check to send money to a charity.

In those situations, before the victim mailed the check, they were instructed to send a photo of the check to the fraudster. From there, the fraudsters could easily create new checks that looked just like the real thing—including the signatures.

While it’s a shame that the need exists, we’re very pleased to share this information with you, so you can be more aware of methods fraudsters use, and thus better protect your personal information and finances. Protecting your finances by being aware of potential fraud is an important part of banking well.

At The Bank of Missouri, we help you Live Well, Bank Well.

Live Well, Bank Well