International crime rings are targeting New Zealanders' bank accounts to launder proceeds from scams and fraud, experts say.
These Kiwi victims become "money mules" who transfer illegally acquired money on behalf of a criminal, often without even realising it.
Mules are recruited to move money through bank accounts, making it difficult for police to track money stolen from a victim or gained through criminal activity such as drugs, fraud or human trafficking.
Commission for Financial Capability (CFFC) fraud education manager, Bronwyn Groot said people of all ages and from all walks of life are being targeted.
"From our young students who don't understand the consequences of letting people use their bank accounts, to the elderly who are caught out in romance or investment scams," she said.
NZ Police and financial institutions have both expressed a growing concern about the increase of money mules, a trend which has also been seen in the UK.
The BBC reports money mules are on the rise among young people. The number of 14 to 18-year-olds who have allowed their bank accounts to be used to divert funds has grown by 73 per cent in just two years.
CEO of Netsafe, Martin Cocker said young people more likely to be targeted by employment scams, where the victim is ostensibly hired for a job as an account manager working from home and told they are transacting payments on behalf of an organisation.
"There is a generation of people coming through in the gig economy where business models often are broken up into small parts," Cocker said.
"So I can see that young people might be in a position where they might see a scam activity as a looking like a legitimate payment processing business."
Another scam used to lure victims into becoming unwitting money mules is an online relationship scam.
The target engages in what they believe is an authentic relationship, but is really a scammer building trust with a victim who then asks them to transact money through their account.
"A lot of the unwitting ones are caught out in romance scams," Groot said. "They have met someone online who will then say to them: 'my bank account has been frozen, so I need to send some money through your bank account, can you help me out?'
Netsafe are seeing a large increase in scams where the goal is to position the victim as a money mule, as scammers have become aware that sending money directly overseas is high-risk and want local bank accounts that make scams seem more realistic.
Groot says mules are often shocked to discover they may be charged with money laundering and face imprisonment of up to seven years.
"Many online scams involve asking the victim to receive money to 'look after' and then transfer it to another account, usually offshore," says Groot. "In most cases the money has been scammed from someone else, and is destined to fund organised crime."
However, not all money mules are unwitting victims. Mules fall into three categories – unwitting, witting or complicit.
Cocker said there are a group of people who are aware they are involved in a scam activity and are enjoying the profits.
"People who transact a couple of transactions, possibly are quite unwitting," Cocker said. "But once somebody has been transacting for a while, they are given lots of opportunities to become suspicious."
The best way to avoid becoming a victim, with an unwanted criminal record, is to know what these scams look like and to carefully research any organisation that asks you to move money.
"If anyone wants to use your bank account you need to know absolutely why they want to do so," Groot said.
"Think long and hard about why someone else needs to funnel money through your account. Just like you don't give out your pin number; don't use your bank account to move others people's money."