Smurfing: Don’t become a money mule!

With smurfing, a money mule—often unwittingly—helps criminals launder money that was earned illegally. Here, you’ll learn how to recognize and avoid getting caught up in these schemes.

9 min read

You’re short on money and want to squeeze in a side hustle? This Facebook job ad might just be what you’ve been looking for: You can work from the comfort of your own home, don’t need any experience, and you’ll make lots of money—with barely any effort!

Sounds too good to be true? Well, it probably is. If the job description contains words like “financial manager,” “100% legit,” or “money transfer,” you can be pretty sure this is part of a smurfing scheme. Smurfing is a kind of money laundering scam where criminals recruit “money mules” to help move illegal funds. In this article, you’ll learn more about this type of fraud and how to stop from getting dragged into this world by mistake.

The three stages of money laundering, explained

Before we take a closer look at smurfing and money muling, let’s talk about money laundering. When criminals acquire a large amount of money illegally, they need to launder it, or make it appear legal. The funds might be earned through illicit activities such as drug, arms, or human trafficking, as well as tax evasion, cyber attacks, and online fraud. It’s estimated that 300 billion euros is generated illegally in Germany in total each year. As a result, the government loses income from taxes and, despite anti–money laundering laws, a large part of these illegal funds is funneled back into the legal financial system.  

Criminals use different methods to make their money appear legal. There are three stages of laundering: 

  1. Placement: Stage one is attempting to turn illegally obtained cash money into money in the bank. When criminals run a business—like a restaurant, casino, or kiosk—they can simply place cash money in the till and enter it in their account books so it appears legitimate.    
  2. Layering: The second stage is when criminals try to conceal the illegal origin of their money by transferring it to multiple bank accounts in different countries or accounts linked to bogus companies. The more detours the money takes, the harder it is to trace it back. 
  3. Integration: Stage three is laundering money through investments that are traditionally done with cash. The fraudsters might buy an apartment or a car with their ill-gotten funds and try to resell the asset later on, thereby receiving legal money.

Smurfing belongs to stage one of laundering. But what exactly is smurfing and how does it work?

Smurfing: Money laundering with the help of money mules

Smurfing sounds pretty harmless, and that’s no surprise—the term is taken straight from The Smurfs cartoon. Smurfs are blue, cute, and tiny. If you don’t pay attention, you might even overlook them altogether, and they definitely seem harmless. That’s exactly what criminals are trying to do with this type of money laundering. So, how does it work?

Smurfing is also called “structuring” because criminals split a large amount of money into smaller parts. Then, they use money mules to transfer the smaller amounts into different bank accounts. Just like an innocent cartoon character, money mules don’t attract much attention, which means that they can easily—often unwittingly—introduce illegal funds into the legal banking system. Then, the next question is: How do criminals make other people participate in this fraud in the first place? 

Financial managers: How fraudsters recruit money mules on social media

Obviously, most criminals want to stay anonymous. That’s why they can’t use their own names when creating bank accounts to launder money. Instead, they post dubious job offers as “financial managers” on Facebook and Instagram to recruit money mules. Unlike the criminals, money mules or smurfs are living normal lives. Usually, they’re young people who live on a budget and are looking for a side hustle. The job offer appears to be real, and the only requirement is a bank account. If they don’t have one already, they simply open a new account. The money mule receives a payment from their “boss” and then transfers part of that money to a different account, keeping a small percentage as their “salary.” Sometimes the criminals even ask you to share the login data to your personal bank account and then simply make the transfers themselves.

Money mules play an important part in smurfing: Just like a mule carrying people’s luggage from one place to another, the money mule is used to move illicit funds. And this, unfortunately, makes the money mule an accomplice to a crime. Unlike phishing or other online scams, with smurfing, people knowingly transfer money on behalf of someone else. They might not be aware of the illegal origin of that money, but they do benefit from an illegal business, since they take a share of the money as a commission. Below, you can learn more about the legal consequences of smurfing. At this point, you might be wondering: How can you avoid falling for this scam and becoming a money mule?

How to spot money muling and smurfing online

Online fraudsters are experts in manipulating and using people. One of the many types of online fraud is job scamming. With this scam, criminals attempt to steal sensitive information from their victims by posting fake job offers on social media. When looking for a smurf, though, they use a different approach: They capitalize on the financial stress of their victims to turn them into accomplices. Luckily, there are a number of tips for how to spot dubious job offers on social media:  

  • Job title: Keywords such as “financial manager” or “mystery shopper” are good indicators of money muling, disguised as a real job offer.
  • Job description: With fraudulent jobs, the description of the tasks is vague, at best. It only reveals a little information, such as “making purchases” or “transferring money.”
  • Required skills: The only requirement for a money muling job is usually a bank account, although other payment providers or cryptocurrencies are becoming increasingly popular, too. Regardless of the payment method, if you don’t need any experience, can work from home, and only need a few minutes per day, you can be pretty sure that the job offer is fake. 
  • Payment: If the ad promises same-day money that you can keep as a commission payment for making transfers, stay away! 
  • Contact details: When the only way to reach your potential “employer” is through WhatsApp, Telegram, or Instagram, odds are that this isn’t a legitimate business.
  • Media: Job ads for “financial managers” are usually posted on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms, and they’re often shared by fake accounts that don’t have any identifying information about the profile owner.

Other telltale signs are: 

  • Typos: Many criminals operate internationally and use translation software to create the job ads. That’s why you can often find incorrect spelling, grammar mistakes, or unusual phrasings.
  • Short, concise sentences: The language is often fast-paced and simple to attract your attention and create a sense of urgency. 
  • Positive or emotional tone: The fraudsters use phrases such as “100% legit” or “low risk” to calm your doubts and fears. They might try to lure you with the prospect of same-day payment, or alternatively, beg for your help and offer money as a thank you.   
  • Motivational pictures: The job ads often use pictures of large amounts of cash or other symbols or memes that represent wealth.

Other ways of money muling

Money mules are often recruited over social media, where users tend to be younger. Oftentimes, job offers aren’t even ads, but just comments on other people’s posts. It could be something like: “Do you have an N26 account and want to earn €1,000 fast? DM me to learn more!” 

Professional fraudsters might also place paid ads on social media platforms or other websites, or they could even contact you directly by email. They might also use corporate logos, fonts, or colors of well-known companies to appear like a legitimate, trustworthy business. 

Regardless of how fraudsters reach out to you, stay alert and follow our tips in this article to double check any job offers you receive—always! And a few other guidelines: 

  • Never open a bank account at the request of other people, especially if you don’t know them personally. 
  • Never share sensitive information such as your PIN number or online banking login details. 
  • Never agree to transfer money on behalf of other people. 

This isn’t only about protecting your bank account, but yourself and your loved ones. Money laundering is a severe crime that you really don’t want to be associated with—next, we’ll explain why, in case you need further convincing.

Why money mules should fear prosecution

It’s extremely dangerous to get involved with smurfing because mules aren’t legally considered victims. Even if someone believes they’re just doing their “job” and is unaware that the money was earned illegally, according to § 261 of the German criminal code, they’re aiding a crime and are liable to be prosecuted. Banks and other organizations have several ways to detect and resolve cases of money laundering. Modern software helps spot and report abnormalities. If your bank detects suspicious transfers in your account, your account will be blocked so you can no longer access your funds. Then, the bank will report the case to the police, and criminal charges could be laid. In Germany, money mules can expect up to two years of prison and/or substantial fines according to § 261 section 4. Special damages by civil law might be claimed, and you’ll have to pay back your “earnings.” And if you share an apartment with a partner, they might be indicted too.  

You’ll also have a criminal record, and that will make life pretty hard in the future. You need to show your record whenever you apply for a new job, an apartment, or request a loan. And while you’re stuck paying the price for money muling, the actual criminals are long gone. That’s why it’s so important that you don’t get caught up in their scam. Instead, report suspicious job offers to the police immediately. Remember: No legitimate employer would ever ask you to transfer funds through your personal bank account or share sensitive bank details with them.   


Security at N26

As a 100% mobile bank with a full European banking license, N26 is committed to fighting financial crime. We’ve introduced a number of security measures to combat money laundering and keep your bank account safe—read our FAQ on security at N26 to learn more. On our blog, you can find even more guides on how to protect yourself and your money from online scams, like our article on fake app testing job ads and our guide to secure online banking

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