The term “money mule” describes a person who is recruited by criminals to help transfer money that has been illegally obtained. Typically, the money is stolen through fraud or cybercrime. Of course, money mule activities are illegal. Those who participate can face serious consequences including jail time, fines and damage to their credit scores.
As reported by the Central District of California branch of the United States Attorney's Office last week, a Westminster, California woman has been charged with being a money mule. It is alleged that 55 year-old, Serena Lieu laundered funds for cybercriminals.
Lieu has been charged with six counts.
She is charged with three counts of money laundering and three counts of engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity. The U.S. Attorney’s Office reports that Lieu laundered money that was sent directly from fraud victims. The individuals were tricked into sending the funds to financial accounts that she controlled as opposed to their intended recipients.
Lieu was arrested on the morning of Wednesday, February 16. She pleaded not guilty to the charges at her arraignment that afternoon and was released from custody on $50,000 bond. An April 11 trial date has been set by the United States District Court in Santa Ana.
Lieu is alleged to have engaged in a business email compromise scam.
Business email compromise (BEC) is a scam that targets companies and individuals who perform legitimate transfer-of-funds requests. “Cybercriminals using social engineering or malware impersonate one of the people involved in those money transfers to make the victim send the money to a criminal-controlled bank account,” explains the report, “Once the fraud is detected, it frequently is too late to get the money back since the funds have been quickly moved to other bank accounts or used to buy cryptocurrency.”
Court documents note that, in 2019, law enforcement found that a Lieu-controlled bank account received a wire transfer of $103,350. It was received from a BEC victim in Dallas, Texas. In May of that year, Lieu was interviewed by FBI agents. At the time, she had opened 11 different bank accounts at seven separate financial institutions since 2017. Noticeably, Lieu was moving fraud proceeds in and out of her various bank accounts.
FBI agents gave Lieu a “money mule” warning letter.
She signed it. Nevertheless, Lieu allegedly continued to traffic fraud proceeds. “Between July 2019 and April 2021, Lieu allegedly received more than $1.8 million into various bank accounts,” informs the report, “These funds came directly from fraud victims who were deceived into sending the funds to Lieu-controlled bank accounts, rather than to the victims’ intended recipients, court documents state.”
After receiving the money, Lieu allegedly quickly withdrew or transferred it to various individuals or entities. Her actions included converting the funds into cryptocurrency. Between July 2020 and February 2021, Lieu allegedly transferred more than $560,000 from bank accounts she controlled to accounts at different banks. She also sent funds to Coinbase, which is a cryptocurrency exchange platform.
If convicted on all counts, Lieu faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for each money laundering count. She also faces up to 10 years in federal prison for each illegal monetary transactions count.
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