24 Sep 2021

Mule regret it: Cash-strapped students an easy target for fraudsters as one in three willing to take a gamble with money

  • Money worries make third of students consider opportunity to make easy money, even if suspicious
  • Nearly a third of students would allow someone else to use their account/transfer money for them
  • Two thirds of students don’t know what a money mule is (vs UK average: 56%)
  • Only half of students would tell the police if approached to be a money mule

Financial worries and the need for quick cash makes students a prime target for criminals looking for money mules, as new research highlights a greater tendency for taking risks.

The research from Nationwide Building Society, released to coincide with the start of the new academic year, highlights how 91 per cent of university students1 worry about their financial situation, compared to a UK average2 of 80 per cent.

As a group, around six in ten (61%) students think that they are vulnerable to money mule scams. The main reasons given are due to increased financial worries (59%), the fact they are newly, financially independent (51%) and that they have less ‘lived-in’ experience to spot the warning signs of scams (41%). Nearly half of students (49%) believe that pensioners are most susceptible.

According to the poll, nearly a third (32%) of students admit that concerns over their finances make them more likely to consider accepting an opportunity to make easy money even if it looks suspicious. This is considerably higher than the UK average, where just a fifth (20%) would entertain the idea. Furthermore, nearly a third (29%) of students would even risk allowing someone else to use their current account or to transfer money for someone.

In addition, more than a third (37%) of students admitted they would click on or respond to an advert that gives them the opportunity to earn quick or easy money, compared to just a quarter (25%) of Brits.

Lack of knowledge about money mules:

Allowing people to use someone’s account or transferring money on their behalf can lead to someone, either knowingly or unknowingly, becoming a money mule - where someone is asked to receive money into their account and then transfer it into another, or allow someone else access to their account for the same purpose usually with the promise of a financial reward. However, the research highlights a lack of understanding across the board of what a money mule is, with nearly two thirds (65%) of students not knowing what it is compared to the UK average (56 per cent).

Consequences of being a mule:

No matter what people are told, they can never know where the money came from and if it’s the proceeds of a crime, anyone handling or transferring the money will be classed as a mule and considered to be aiding money laundering. Those who knowingly allow their account to be used as part of a scam can face a sentence of 14 years in prison, while anyone who has been a mule can have their account shut and find it difficult to open another, as well as harming their ability to access credit or ability to find work in some industries.3

While students believe the main consequence of being a money mule is having your current account shut down (49%), 43 per cent wrongly believe they are most likely to get a two-year prison sentence. Only 38 per cent of students believe they won’t be able to open a new current account with their current provider, while only just over a third (37%) believe it will impact them opening a new current account with any provider.

Scenarios that could lead people to becoming a mule:

The Nationwide poll also highlights how decision making in different situations could put people at risk to becoming part of a money mule scam. For example, nearly three in five (58%) students say that if a friend were to ask to send them money so they can transfer it on to someone else for them they would agree to do it. This compares to just under two in five (39%) of the wider population.

More than two thirds (69%) of students have accepted a friend request on social media from someone they didn’t know or who they hadn’t previously met. This is nearly double the UK average (36%) who said they would do the same.

However, when it comes to the same request from a casual acquaintance, such as someone they don’t know well or had just met online, the roles are slightly reversed. One in five Brits (20%) would agree to transfer money compared to just 16 per cent of students. The same goes for letting someone else manage their account to make the transfer themselves – 15 per cent of UK adults would agree to it, compared with just under one in ten (9%) of students. But social media accounts can be hacked and even if people think they know the person, it’s possible it’s not them asking.

Been approached to be a ‘money mule? Who would you tell?

If anyone was approached to be a money mule, the police would be the first port of call for students (52%), followed by their parents (46%), while more than a third (34%) would tell their bank or building society. However, around one in ten (11%) students wouldn’t tell anyone if they were approached to be a money mule.

Too good to be true….it often is:

Both students (95%) and other UK adults (91%) admit to seeing or hearing things they think are too good to be true. However, if such an opportunity comes, it’s students who are more likely to check it out before proceeding because nearly a quarter (23%) of Brits said they wouldn’t carry about any checks compared just 8 per cent of students.

Ed Fisher, Nationwide’s Head of Fraud, said: “Students, especially freshers arriving at university for the first time, can often be an easy target for fraudsters given their money worries, lack of experience of the financial system and managing their money, and how much of their daily lives are spent online. Our research shows it’s that hunt for quick and easy cash which can sometimes put them at risk, leading to immediate and long-term consequences. However, it’s also important to note that anyone can become a money mule – both young and old.

“However, it’s really encouraging to see that a good proportion of students will do their research on an opportunity before going ahead with it because getting involved in a money mule scam could result in a criminal prosecution, their account being frozen or even closed, difficulty finding credit or even some jobs no longer being an option. It’s important to always have the old adage in mind that if an opportunity looks too good to be true, it probably is. No one will ever need you to receive and then transfer money – you can’t know where it’s come from and it could be the proceeds of a nasty crime. That little bit of research could make the real difference between whether your future career and finances are successful or not.”

Nationwide’s tips to avoid becoming a money mule: 

  • Be wary of job adverts that offer the chance to earn a significant amount of money for very little effort. Try and stick to reputable job ad websites.
  • Be cautious with any job offers from overseas. It will be harder for you to find out if they are legitimate.
  • Always be suspicious of anyone contacting you offering of quick and easy money. Remember the old adage that if it is too good to be true, then it probably is.
  • Do not sign up or proceed with any opportunity without undertaking some proper research on the person, company or opportunity. For example, make sure the company and contact details are legitimate.
  • Do not engage with any social media posts offering large sums of money. Ignore them and report them.
  • Don’t share bank and personal details with anyone that you don’t know or trust.
  • If you are asked to receive money into your account and to then transfer that on to someone else, say no and contact the police and your bank or building society. You never know where that money has come from – it could have come from criminal activity.

Notes to editors

1 Research conducted online by Censuswide with 1,500 students between 3-13 September. Student is defined as someone currently at university or undertaking a university course.

2 Research conducted online by Censuswide with 1,501 UK adults between 3-15 September 2021.

3 Money mules - what are they and could you fall victim? (moneyadviceservice.org.uk)