TOM TUGENDHAT: Students face perils that did not exist in my day. Tech giants MUST help us keep them safe

As you pack the car at the start of your child’s student life, what are you most worried about? That they make friends? That they settle into their adult lives?

These are the concerns that usually occupy us as parents. Not that there’s a risk they’ll be drawn into serious crime.

Today’s students face a new danger that didn’t exist when I left home – the risk of becoming money mules. The Mail’s campaign to fight this evolving crime really matters.

Easy money and ‘get-rich-quick’ ads on platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook have become a honeypot for young people, putting their bank accounts at risk of being used by scammers to launder the profits of their crimes.

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat leaves Downing Street on September 12

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat leaves Downing Street on September 12

Scammers create fake ‘investment opportunities’ to trick young people into letting them use their bank accounts to launder cash. In reality, these are often connected to serious crime: drug dealers, people traffickers and even terrorists.

Although 70 per cent of fraud in the UK has an overseas element, thousands of UK bank accounts are used to launder the proceeds of these crimes.

The National Crime Agency — Britain’s FBI — estimates that more than £10billion is laundered through money-mule networks every year in the UK.

Social media makes advertising cheap and easy, turning apps such as Instagram and Snapchat into a rich hunting ground for criminals to identify and recruit mules.

Some of these mules know what they’re doing but think the criminal link is minor and turn a blind eye.

Others are tricked or coerced, never knowing the true origin of the funds — and become victims themselves.

The days of criminals posing as African princes are long gone. Fraudsters have upped their game, crafting increasingly credible stories to gain access to vulnerable people’s information.

Sometimes these scams can take a much more personal form. ‘Tinder swindlers’ use dating profiles to manipulate people into doing their bidding. 

They pretend to be savvy entrepreneurs, posting wads of cash on Snapchat and offering to share the secret of their success in exchange for moving some of their money.

These ‘get-rich-quick’ ads are a front for more sinister activity. 

Criminals need to hide their money or move it without the police noticing. Getting other people to do their dirty work is quick, easy and comes with less risk — for them.

I welcome the work the Mail is doing to highlight the scale of scams on social media. With nine in 10 internet users now seeing suspected scams online, it’s about time social media giants stepped up to better protect their users.

Our schools and universities can make easy targets. Scammers have a knack for identifying vulnerabilities and often look to prey upon students or those without a steady income. 

Some of these students will provide access to their accounts, unaware that they are breaking the law, and that the money moving through their account could wind up in the hands of people smugglers and terrorists.

Social media makes advertising cheap and easy, turning apps such as Instagram and Snapchat into a rich hunting ground for criminals (Stock Image)

Social media makes advertising cheap and easy, turning apps such as Instagram and Snapchat into a rich hunting ground for criminals (Stock Image)

If you are approached with an unsolicited offer to make easy cash by moving money or sharing your bank account details, do not accept. 

Break off contact and seek advice from someone you trust. You can report it directly to the police or submit a report 100 per cent anonymously to Crimestoppers.

Even if a person is unaware that the money passing through their account was acquired illegally, they can still be held responsible. And you can be sure the criminals who lured them in online won’t care about the consequences.

I’ve been told of cases where people have had their bank accounts closed, credit scores trashed, access to student finance blocked and, in some cases, have even faced a prison sentence. 

They pay the price while criminal gangs profit and too often walk away scot-free.

That’s unacceptable. In our Fraud Strategy, published earlier this year to overhaul how we tackle these crimes, we made a specific pledge to tackle money-muling and drive forward efforts to go after those responsible, dismantle the systems criminals hide behind and protect victims.

I’m leading a co-ordinated response, working with law enforcement, the financial sector and organisations that work with children to raise awareness of the risks among young people and cripple fraudsters’ ability to profit from them.

This is not something I can do alone. Tech firms must also do more to identify and block mule recruitment in the first place. 

That’s why we’ll be publishing an Online Fraud Charter which outlines a set of concrete actions, agreed with the tech sector, to stamp out fraud and money laundering on their platforms.

By strengthening detection and blocking processes, and improving reporting mechanisms, we’ll move a step closer to stopping fraudsters and mule recruiters’ access to these sites.

Combined with our new powers under the Online Safety Bill, we’ll ensure that the tech sector is taking responsibility for the safety of its users.

Fraud is an appalling crime. It destroys trust and consumes savings. It can take away confidence and damage prospects for the future, too.

That’s why we’re going after fraudsters and protecting victims. The young people starting their lives at university this week are there to build their future. We must not let fraudsters steal it before it has even started.

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