Former Nigerian official to serve 5 years for unemployment fraud and scams
A former Nigerian official has been sentenced to five years for what prosecutors have called a “litany of scams” that gobbled up more than $600,000 in public and private funds, including Washington unemployment benefits intended for victims of the pandemic.
Abidemi Rufai, 45, of Lekki, Nigeria, was sentenced in federal court in Tacoma on Monday for crimes ranging from $350,763 pandemic unemployment fraud to filing false federal tax returns and stealing money Federal Disaster Relief. Prosecutors had sought for nearly six years, as well as restitution of $604,260 for multiple counts of wire fraud and aggravated impersonation for Rufai.
The phrase “sends a strong message that these foreign actors who are overseas cannot just hide anonymously behind keyboards and can be brought to justice in the United States,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Cindy Chang, who handles COVID fraud for the U.S. Attorney. Office in Seattle.
Rufai, one of the first suspects arrested in the $650 million Washington unemployment fraud, was arrested in May 2021 at John F. Kennedy International Airport when he allegedly attempted to return to Nigeria. He had briefly served as an aide to Adedapo Abiodun, Governor of Ogun State in Nigeria, before being suspended following his arrest.
Among other crimes, Rufai was accused of using stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data to file dozens of bogus pandemic unemployment benefit claims in Washington and other states. Profits from these claims were transferred to bank accounts controlled either by Rufai or by accomplices known as “money mules”.
A pattern of scam and fraud
In sentencing papers, prosecutors detailed a pattern of fraud and scams dating back to at least 2017. Rufai used the stolen identities of 49 Texas and Florida residents to file for federal disaster relief for Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, according to filings.
Rufai also allegedly ran a “mystery shopper” scam, in which he allegedly sent forged checks to accomplices who were instructed to deposit the funds and transfer most of the money to Rufai, according to sentencing documents. By the time the accomplices discovered the checks were worthless, some had already wired thousands of dollars of their own money, according to federal documents.
Monday’s sentencing papers also added detail to the government’s earlier characterizations that Rufai was a big spender using ill-gotten gains to fund a life of undeserved luxury and status.
During a visit to the United States in 2020, Rufai appears to have used the proceeds of the fraud to buy a luxury Mercedes SUV for $71,620 and shipped it to Nigeria, prosecutors said. At the time of his arrest, Rufai was wearing a Cartier watch and had a ticket for a business class flight to Nigeria.
Rufai must also pay $604,260 in restitution, but federal officials expect to see less than $100,000, given that most of Rufai’s remaining assets are likely no longer in the United States. Seth Wilkinson, co-lawyer in the case.
Rufai’s defense attorney, Lance Hester, had requested a 30-month sentence due to extenuating circumstances, including “gambling addiction” and “a childhood exposed to untreated trauma” in a country notorious for ” corruption of the government and leaders,” according to the defense. conviction records.
Hester also argued that sentencing guidelines in such cases are inconsistent, and that defendants charged with much larger frauds have often received shorter sentences than prosecutors want for Rufai.
Rufai asked to serve his sentence in Fort Dix, New Jersey, which Judge Benjamin Settle agreed to recommend, but the decision will be made by the Bureau of Prisons, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney said.
Breaches of security
Rufai’s case offered an embarrassing window into security lapses during the pandemic for the Department of Employment Security and other state unemployment agencies, which succumbed to a remarkably crude fraud scheme. .
According to federal investigators, Rufai had filed dozens of bogus ESD unemployment claims using a single Gmail account. A feature in Gmail allows account holders to create dozens of additional email addresses by simply adding one or more dots to the original address.
Since the Gmail system does not recognize dots, all emails sent to these so-called dot-variant addresses are all routed to the inbox of the original Gmail address.
At the time of Rufai’s arrest, ESD officials declined to say whether the agency’s systems detected dot-variant email addresses during the wave of fraud that hit Washington and other states in early 2020, or whether it has since upgraded its claims system to block similar addresses. complaints.
“For security reasons, we cannot comment on what our systems do or do not screen,” said then-ESD spokesman Nick Demerice. “I can say that we learned a lot from the initial attack on our system and are making continuous improvements to prevent further losses.”
But while the dot variants appear to have escaped ESD security, they also allowed federal investigators to track Rufai.
“This guy thought we would never know who he was,” Wilkinson said. “He thought that by using these fake email accounts they could remain anonymous enough that he could travel to the United States and get away with it.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Assistant US Attorney Seth Wilkinson.