Paul Roberts / The Seattle Times
A former Nigerian official has been sentenced to five years in prison after prosecutors called a “litany of fraud” that stole more than $600,000 in public and private funds, including unemployment benefits from Washington for pandemic victims.
Abidemi Rufai, 45, of Lekki, Nigeria, was convicted Monday in Tacoma federal court of crimes ranging from $350,763 in unemployment fraud to filing forged federal tax returns and stealing federal disaster relief funds. Prosecutors had asked for nearly six years, along with recovering $604,260 for multiple wire fraud and aggravated identity theft charges for Rufai.
The phrase “sends a strong message that these foreign actors cannot simply hide anonymously behind keyboards abroad and that they can be brought to justice in the United States,” said US Assistant Attorney Cindy Chang, who represents the US Prosecutors COVID Fraud Handles Seattle Office
Rufai, one of the first suspects arrested in Washington’s $650 million unemployment scam, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in May 2021 while allegedly attempting to fly back to Nigeria. He had briefly served as an adviser to Adedapo Abiodun, governor of Nigeria’s Ogun State, before reportedly being suspended following his arrest.
Among other crimes, Rufai has been accused of using stolen Social Security numbers and other personal information to file dozens of fake unemployment claims in Washington and other states amid a pandemic. The benefits of these demands were transferred to bank accounts controlled by either Rufai or accomplices known as “money mules”.
A pattern of fraud and deceit
In sentencing papers, prosecutors have detailed a pattern of fraud and fraud going back at least to 2017. According to filings, Rufai used stolen identities of 49 Texas and Florida residents to file a request for federal disaster relief for Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
Rufai is also said to have carried out a “mystery shopper” scam in which he sent bogus checks to accomplices, who were instructed to deposit the money and wire most of the money to Rufai, according to sentencing documents. By the time accomplices discovered the checks were worthless, some had already wired thousands of dollars of their own money, according to federal documents.
Monday’s sentencing documents also added details on previous government characterizations of Rufai as a big spender, using ill-gotten gains to fund a life of undeserved luxury and status.
During a 2020 visit to the United States, Rufai appears to have used fraud proceeds to buy a luxury Mercedes SUV for $71,620 and ship it to Nigeria, prosecutors said. At the time of his arrest, Rufai was wearing a Cartier watch and had a business-class flight ticket to Nigeria.
Rufai also has to pay $604,260 in reimbursement, but federal officials expect to see less than $100,000 since most of Rufai’s remaining assets are likely no longer in the United States. “It’s really difficult to get foreign assets…in Nigeria,” said Assistant US Attorney Seth Wilkinson, co-counsel on the case.
Rufai’s defense attorney, Lance Hester, had sought a 30-month sentence on extenuating circumstances, including a “gambling addiction” and “a childhood exposed to untreated trauma” in a country notorious for “government and leadership corruption.” , according to the defense criminal complaints.
Hester also argued that sentencing guidelines in such cases are inconsistent and that defendants charged with significantly larger frauds often received shorter sentences than prosecutors wanted for Rufai.
Rufai asked to serve his sentence in Fort Dix, New Jersey, which Judge Benjamin Settle promised, but the decision will be made by the Bureau of Prisons, a US Attorney’s spokesman said.
Rufai’s case provided an embarrassing window on security breaches during the pandemic at the Occupational Safety and Health Department and other government employment agencies, which fell victim to a fraud scheme that was remarkably low-tech.
According to federal investigators, Rufai had submitted dozens of fake jobless claims to ESD using a single Gmail account. A feature of Gmail allows account holders to create dozens of additional email addresses by simply adding a period or periods to the original address.
Because the Gmail system doesn’t recognize dots, any emails sent to these so-called dot variant addresses are all forwarded 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 had detected email addresses with dot variants during the wave of fraud that hit Washington and other states in early 2020, or whether they’ve since updated their claims system to block similar claims.
“For security reasons, we cannot comment on what our systems are doing or not checking,” said then ESD spokesman Nick Demerice. “I can say that we learned a lot from the first attack on our system and are continuously making improvements to avoid additional casualties.”
But while the Dot variants appear to have bypassed ESD security, they also allowed federal investigators to track Rufai.
“This guy thought we’d 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.”