One of the challenges of AML work is keeping up with the endless adaptability and imagination of criminals. Unshackled by moral considerations, or by the need to report to risk committees or by the requirement to comply with legislation (quite the opposite!) criminals can turn on a sixpence and take immediate advantage of any opportunity that presents itself.
The week before last, the airline Flybe went into administration. I was in Guernsey at the time – an island previously served by Flybe – and within minutes (literally, minutes) of the collapse being announced, people were receiving texts purportedly from their banks asking them to “Click this link to submit your information so that we can promptly process your Flybe refunds”. The savvy compliance people with whom I work simply rolled their eyes – who has ever heard of a bank tripping over itself to offer a refund? – but who knows how many ordinary people, panicked by the thought of losing money, followed the link and blithely submitted their bank account details?
And talking of panic, COVID-19 is proving a bonanza for criminals. The snake-oil salesmen are out in force, offering a menu of products that can protect you from the virus, or treat it if you catch it – from teas to essential oils, and from tinctures to silver. Such is the concern that social media companies have reacted quickly: if you do a Google search on “treat coronavirus” and click on the Shopping button, there are no results at all, as they have all been blocked. Other frauds involve sellers of protective face masks or bulk quantities of “special” hand sanitiser that never arrive (and wouldn’t work if they did). And in a phishing variant, fraudsters (pretending to be from research organisations affiliated with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organisation) are contacting people and offering a list of the coronavirus-infected people in their neighbourhood. The victim clicks on the link, and is either taken to a malicious website or asked to make a payment in Bitcoin.
Baddies are also taking advantage of the pandemic in other ways. American journalist Brian Krebs has written an interesting – horrifying but interesting – article about how criminals are using the suddenly increased at-home workforce to recruit more money mules. As he explains in his article, they are quickly setting up “mule factories” to recruit the unwary (or the financially desperate) – you really need to read his exposé of the Vasty Health Care Foundation.
Criminals prey on our baser nature – our greed, our fear, our selfishness. AML has always tried to focus outwards, encouraging us to protect ourselves, our clients, our institutions and the global financial system, and these latest crises are no different. As the government advice has it: be prepared but not scared.