A Nigerian man identified as Abidemi Rufai, has been arrested in the United States of America in connection with a $350 million COVID19 unemployment benefits fraud.
According to a statement released by the United States Department of Justice, Abidemi Rufai, was arrested at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport last Friday, May 14, by federal agents as he allegedly attempted to leave the country. He appeared in a US Federal court on Saturday, May 15, on charges that he used the identities of more than 100 Washington residents to steal more than $350,000 in unemployment benefits from the Washington State Employment Security Department during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
“Since the first fraud reports to our office in April 2020, we have worked diligently with a federal law enforcement team to track down the criminals who stole funds designated for pandemic relief. This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud.”Tessa Gorman, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington said
The United States Department of Justice in its statement said the criminal complaint alleges that Rufai used the stolen identities of more than 100 Washington residents to file fraudulent claims with ESD for pandemic-related unemployment benefits and was able to collect the proceeds using the accounts of his relatives in New York and Jamaica.
”Rufai also filed fraudulent unemployment claims in Hawaii, Wyoming, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, and Pennsylvania. Rufai used variations of a single e-mail address in a manner intended to evade automatic detection by fraud systems. By using this practice, Rufai made it appear that each claim was connected with a different email account.
Rufai caused the fraud proceeds to be paid out to online payment accounts such as ‘Green Dot’ accounts, or wired to bank accounts controlled by “money mules.”
Some of the proceeds were then mailed to the Jamaica, New York address of Rufai’s relative. Law enforcement determined more than $288,000 was deposited into an American bank account controlled by Rufai between March and August 2020.” the statement in part read
Investigators said Rufai used small variations in email addresses in a Gmail account, which made it appear like he was multiple people, to slip through fraud detection at ESD. He primarily uses the address Sandytangy5@gmail.com but would scatter periods in variations like firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Investigators said Gmail addresses do not recognize periods, so anything sent to the different addresses went straight to Rufai’s inbox.
In January, a federal judge issued a warrant to Gmail, allowing investigators to search his Gmail account. Rufai however let down his guard by linking his Nigerian phone number to the account.
Commenting on his arrest, Donald Voiret, Special Agent in Charge FBI Seattle, said
”Greed is a powerful motivator. Unfortunately, the greed alleged to this defendant affects all taxpayers. The FBI and our partners will not stand idly by while individuals attempt to defraud programs meant to assist American workers and families suffering the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Wire fraud is punishable by up to thirty years in prison when it relates to benefits paid in connection with a presidentially declared disaster or emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rufai made his initial appearance on Saturday, May 15 in New York. He is scheduled for a detention hearing Wednesday, May 19.