Finland joined 25 other European countries in a major operation aimed at tracking down money mules on the continent.
The operation, which was conducted between last Monday and Friday, resulted in the arrest of 159 people and the identification of 766 money mules across Europe.
The sting was spearheaded by the European law enforcement cooperation agency Europol and the judicial cooperation agency Eurojust and also involved the EU’s banking federation and 257 banks.
A money mule is an individual who — often unwittingly — plays the role of an intermediary for criminals or criminal organizations by transferring fraudulently-obtained cash among fraudsters.
The use of such intermediaries makes it difficult to track the source of the money and the identity of the criminals behind the money flows.
Transfers of "dark money" abroad
According to Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation NBI, mules are often duped into transferring illegally-acquired funds among bank accounts in different countries. The mules may receive a fee for making such transfers.
During the sting, European officials identified more than 1,700 money transfers with a total value of 31 million euros conducted by mules.
NBI said that more than 90 percent of the financial transfers were traced to online crimes such as information phishing, e-commerce fraud, online dating scams and cons in which victims were sold non-existent vacations.
The transfer of illegally-obtained funds is classified as money laundering and is punishable by fines, prison terms or the loss of creditworthiness. A mule may be convicted of money laundering even if the individual was not directly involved in the original crime.
More than 160 cases in Finland
The NBI said that Finnish police have come across 163 cases in which the victims of scams have transferred money abroad.
So far this year, officials say Finns have transferred some 3.6 million euros abroad, the vast majority of which has ended up in British and Turkish bank accounts.
This year, officials have recorded 29 cases where a total of some 266,000 euros was transferred to Finnish bank accounts from persons suspected of being mules abroad. The majority of such funds originated in the United Arab Emirates.
Europol and Eurojust have launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #DontBeaMule, aimed at preventing people from unknowingly getting caught up in money laundering activities.