During the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington’s Employment Security Department lost hundreds of millions of dollars to fraud as schemers rushed to fraudulently claim unemployment benefits that included an inviting federal supplement. A big chunk of that fraud appears to come from a Nigerian crime ring. One alleged participant, Abidemi Rufai, was arrested May 14 as he tried to depart New York for Nigeria.
Rufai was charged with using the stolen identities of more than 100 Washington residents to file fraudulent unemployment claims, raking in more than $350,000 before authorities ferreted him out. Prosecutors reportedly found evidence in his Google email account, which was used to file multiple claims using variants of the address to avoid automated fraud detection. (Hmm… leaving a forensic trail in a single account sure doesn’t sound like a brilliant approach.) He allegedly also filed fraudulent unemployment claims in Hawaii, Wyoming, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Rufai purportedly had the fraud proceeds paid to online payment accounts or wired to bank accounts controlled by “money mules,” with proceeds then mailed to one of his New York relatives. The wire fraud charges alone are punishable by up to thirty years in prison, because they are related to benefits paid in connection with a Presidentially-declared disaster, in this case the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rufai was initially denied bail after his brother, a New York attorney, declined to post a $300,000 surety bond. (Sounds like his brother is “the smart one”.) Despite prosecutor concerns that Rufai is an extreme flight risk (Because, duh, he was trying to flee when they nabbed him), the judge ruled that a family friend in New York could post bond and serve as his custodian until he is moved to Washington for his unemployment insurance fraud trial. Federal prospectors have appealed the decision, raising questions about the source of money recently deposited into the friend’s bank account.
European and African media accounts indicate that Rufai holds official government positions in Nigeria, serving as a senior special assistant on housing in the Nigerian state of Ogun, and as an aid to Ogun Governor Dapo Abiodun. That status could make extradition particularly challenging if he were able to flee to Nigeria.
It’s important to remember that every person accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent unless and until guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt. (No doubt, our justice system will make sure this man gets a fair trial and the right punishment if he is found guilty of unemployment fraud.)
Today’s Fraud of the Day comes from a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington, “Nigerian citizen charged with defrauding Washington State Employment Security Department of over $350,000,” published May 17, 2021.
Seattle – A Nigerian citizen was arrested Friday evening at JFK Airport in New York on a criminal complaint charging him with wire fraud for his scheme to steal over $350,000 in unemployment benefits from the Washington State Employment Security Department, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman. Abidemi Rufai, aka Sandy Tang, 42, of Lekki, Nigeria, made his initial appearance Saturday May 15, 2021 in New York. He is scheduled for a detention hearing Wednesday.
“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,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Gorman. “This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud.”
Additional information comes from a U.S. News and World Report article, “Release of Unemployment Fraud Suspect Delayed Pending Appeal,” published May 21, 2021.
Further information is also provided in a Yamkima Herald article, “Suspect in Washington state unemployment fraud was a senior Nigerian government aide,” published May 18, 2021.