Canada: international students targeted as “money mules”

Published 14/09/2022

International students in Canada are acting as “money mules” to launder criminal cash from foreign countries, especially China and Hong Kong, an expert in security and defence has suggested.

Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University, both in Kingston, Ontario, said the amounts in each scheme range from $100,000 to millions of dollars.

“These students open bank accounts in Canada and accept large amounts via wire transfer from overseas players,” he told The PIE News in an interview.

A money mule is an individual who, knowingly or unwittingly, transfers the proceeds of crime on behalf of a criminal organisation or money launderer.

“Students open bank accounts in Canada and accept large amounts via wire transfer from overseas players”

“Students are often target for money mule recruitment,” said Robin Percival, a spokeswoman for the national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “Professional money launderers target online and social media sites catering to the ethnic or demographic profiles of their targets.”

The criminals advertise that students can make money by working at home. “Due to the use of social media, the advertisement of quick and easy money, and the financial inexperience of young adults, students are particularly vulnerable to fake advertisements,” Percival added.

After receiving the funds, the money mule passes it on to another organisation in the money laundering scheme.

“Sometimes the students get a cut of the money and sometimes they get nothing because their families back home are under threat,” Leuprecht explained.

Unfortunately for the students, these financial transactions may draw the attention of investigators.

“Their bank accounts demonstrate in-and-out activity with a high volume of cash deposits from various unknown sources,” the Canadian financial intelligence agency FINTRAC said in its annual report. These banking activities are inconsistent with the normal financial standing of an international student.

The funds are often laundered through casinos and purchases of real estate, luxury vehicles and other high-value goods.

Leuprecht said Canadian officials are just becoming aware of the problem, while their counterparts in Australia have been investigating it for several years.

“We can assume that these money launderers have been operating in Canada for a long time and that in good Canadian fashion it’s taken us a while to catch on,” he argued.

Experts urge Canadian international programs to educate students about fake job ads and to be cautious while chatting on social media with people they don’t know. In addition, they should make students aware of the risks in taking part in money laundering. If caught, money mules could be sent to jail or deported from Canada.

Leuprecht noted that for the first time the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s annual report has identified China as an adversarial threat.

“This is just one component of concern about Chinese international students in Canada”

Canada received a wake-up call about China’s willingness to use all tools at its disposal after two Canadian businessmen, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were detained on bogus charges in 2018. They were held for three years before finally being released in a deal to free Chinese businesswoman Meng Wanzhou, who was out on bail in Vancouver, pending extradition to the US.

“This has resulted in a greater willingness for Canadian authorities to call out such activities as money laundering,” Leuprecht says. “However, this is just one component of concern about Chinese international students in Canada.”

Leuprecht points to the 2019 harassment by Chinese students of Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan activitist who was elected student president at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. She was a member of the Free Tibet movement.

“Chinese students are being instrumentalised for the aims of the Chinese government,” he added.

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