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Sophisticated parcel mule scam unpicked

Middlemen stung by work-from-home scam

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Website security in corporate America

Details of a sophisticated re-shipping scam that tricked US residents into working as freight-forwarding middlemen for eastern European crooks, have been exposed by security researchers at RSA.

The web-based fraudulent operation received applications from around 1,900 people, hiring 33 marks to take delivery of high-value goods purchased with stolen credit cards and forward them to a warehouse in Latvia. Electronic goods such as iPhones, Sony PlayStation 3 consoles and laptops were among the items dispatched. More than $36,000 worth of merchandise was shipped out every month as part of the scam, which lasted around a year.

These items were purchased in the US by fraudsters, dispatched through middle-men not involved with the purchase and sent to eastern Europe, where the masterminds behind the scam sold the goods. RSA reckons that few if any of the parcel mules ever got paid. Carders, who made the purchases, and fraudsters, who ran the scheme, split the money 30/70, it reckons.

The scam hid behind the professionally designed and maintained website of an operation calling itself Air Parcel Express. The same name is used by a legitimate firm based in Miami, which is completely unassociated with the fraudulent operation.

RSA said the sophistication of the fraudulent website established by the crooks marks it out from other previous parcel mule scams. "The professional investment in recruitment created a perception of legitimacy," Sean Brady, product marketing manager of identity protection and verification at RSA, told El Reg.

Security researchers at RSA Anti-Fraud Command Centre came across the scam during their daily work in shutting down phishing and Trojan-related attacks on behalf of customers.

The security firm circulates its findings to a network of law enforcement agencies on a regular basis. The site that was central to the scheme has been taken offline. It's unclear if any arrests have been made.

More details on the Air Parcel Express scam can be found here.

The emergence of similarly sophisticated scams is likely, especially in the current tough economic climate when many are desperate for work. Tips on spotting such scams can be found on the website of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse here and US Federal Trade Commission here. ®

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