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If an old family friend asked to borrow £50 and promised to repay you, many of us wouldn’t hesitate to help.

But what would you do if, when the friend returned the loan, you realise they had paid you too much?

Ebony King, 32, found herself in this exact position at the end of her final year of secondary school in 2010 — and it lead to an astonishing series of events that derailed her life.

Aged 19, Ebony’s top marks at school had secured her a place at a London university to study psychology.

Her friend repaid her as promised two months later by transferring the money to her account. But when she went to withdraw it, she found he had overpaid her by several hundred pounds.

Loan ordeal: Ebony King, 32, (pictured), became unwittingly involved in a money laundering operation when she offered to lend £50 to an old family friend

‘I called him immediately to let him know,’ says Ebony. ‘He said it must have been an accident and could I please get the cash from the bank and give it back to him.

‘I didn’t question it — I handed him the cash and thought that was the end of it.’

Six months passed without incident. But then, out of the blue, the police dramatically raided her mum’s house in Dagenham. 

‘There was a loud bang at the door, and it was the police looking for me. I was so shocked and confused,’ she says. ‘They said they were going to arrest me and take me to the station but I didn’t know what for.’

It emerged that the money sent to her account was the proceeds of an online scam. By allowing the money to sit in her account and cashing it out, Ebony had become a so-called money mule and complicit in the handling of laundered money.

Last week, Money Mail revealed the shocking extent to which young people are being recruited to carry out seemingly innocent banking activities for criminals.

Victims are approached by scammers who use clever ploys to gain access to their bank accounts to launder illegal money.

Money transferred into mule accounts can originate from fraud or scams, drug dealing or people trafficking.

In many cases, the unsuspecting mules are told that if they allow money to be paid into their bank account and they cash it out or send it on to another account, they can keep a cut for themselves.

But in others, such as Ebony’s, victims simply believe they are helping a friend.

Even if you are unaware the money you are transferring was illegally obtained, you can be prosecuted for money laundering.

Clean: Ebony’s  criminal record has finally cleared 12 years later

Ebony was landed with a criminal record and convicted of concealing, converting, removing and transferring criminal property. Her family friend vanished and was never charged or convicted.

‘It could have ruined my life. They used me as a scapegoat and acted like I was the mastermind behind the operation. I was still a teenager,’ she says. ‘I got rejected for jobs and had a terrible credit rating for a very long time. I was lucky and found employers who listened to my story and understood what had happened.’

Ebony, who today tells her story for the first time, says she now has the confidence to speak out because her criminal record has finally cleared 12 years later.

She found work as a patient adviser at the NHS and has had three children.

But she says she was unable to trust close friends for a long time.

‘I found it really hard to trust anyone after it happened and I didn’t want to have a bank account,’ she says.

In 2019, she founded the charity ElevateHer in Barking and Dagenham, East London, to provide support to vulnerable teenage girls and young women.

She has now partnered with Snapchat and Barclays to raise awareness of money mules and will be going into schools to teach pupils about the risks. Money muling convictions can result in up to a 14-year prison sentence in the most extreme cases. However, most mules who were unaware of what they were involved in are not convicted.

Ross Martin, head of digital safety at Barclays, says: ‘Ebony’s story is sadly one that’s all too common. Never accept money into your account if you don’t know where it’s come from. If you’ve already received money and are unsure of its origins, do not send it to anyone else, and contact your bank immediately.

Ebony went on to study psychology and counselling at the University of East London and eventually graduated. ‘I didn’t let it stop me. And I know so many young people today who are facing this risk so I wanted to help them,’ she says.

How Social media traps your kids

Social media platforms have opened the floodgates for criminals to recruit money mules. They advertise ways to earn easy money using pictures of bank accounts with high balances to draw people in.

They also create duplicate social media profiles to impersonate users and trick their friends into allowing their bank accounts to be used.

Money Mail’s Stop The Social Media Scammers campaign is calling on tech giants to introduce tougher ID verification to stop fraudsters setting up accounts so easily.

Bait: Social media platforms advertise ways to earn easy money using pictures of bank accounts with high balances to draw people in

The most common way a money mule is contacted is on Instagram, according to Lloyds Bank. Fraudsters then move the conversation to messaging app WhatsApp — also owned by tech giant Meta.

Liz Ziegler, fraud prevention director at the bank says: ‘Typically, the mule will be instructed to move funds from the bank account to foreign exchange platforms (who ask few questions), from which the recruiters collect the cash.’

In the past year, Ebony has spoken to hundreds of local children as young as 12 who have been involved in money muling.

She says: ‘It is so much worse today because young people are being approached on social media platforms,’ she says.

‘Young people are very trusting online and it makes them easier targets. It’s also a cashless society, which makes you ask less questions about bank transfers.

‘They are scared to tell their parents they need the money for something and see this as an easy way of getting some.’

One in five Barclays customers who has been a victim of money mule scams was under the age of 21. It is therefore crucial for young people, and their parents or guardians, to be aware of the warning signs, Mr Martin says.

Learn the warning signs

Nicola Harding, of We Fight Fraud and a criminology professor at Lancaster University, says that the traditional method for criminals to recruit mules is offering an easy way of making money. 

People who fall victim often have a connection to the person who ropes them into it, which creates a false sense of legitimacy.

Marketplace scam: Criminals will often buy something on an online trading platform like Facebook Marketplace and send too much money

However, in a lot of cases, the mule becomes ensnared when trying to act honestly. ‘Criminals will often buy something on an online trading platform like Facebook Marketplace and send too much money. 

‘They then ask for a refund to their bank account and they provide new account details for the transfer,’ she says.

‘Most people will send the extra money back because it is the right and honest thing to do. You would have to be very streetwise to realise that it is a scam. They have built trust because you have their money.’

In other cases, scammers will take control of the person’s bank account and then they don’t need help to push transfers through.

If you are worried a child you know might be involved in money muling, contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111. If you have become involved, call Crimestoppers, the police, your bank and Action Fraud, says Ms Harding.


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