Nearly two years after thieves defrauded Washington state of $650 million in unemployment benefits, a former Nigerian government official has pleaded guilty to his role in the heist.
Abidemi Rufai, 45, of Lekki, Nigeria, pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to charges that he used stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data to file $350,763 in fake claims for pandemic unemployment benefits in spring of 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle said Wednesday.
Rufai, who has been in custody since his May 2021 arrest at New York’s Kennedy International Airport as he was about to fly to Nigeria, was working as a special assistant to the governor of Nigeria’s Ogun state at the time.
Rufai also pleaded guilty to stealing benefits from other states, as well as another $250,000 from other federal programs, according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office statement. From 2017 and 2020, Rufai filed fraudulent claims for $1.7 million in federal tax refunds, of which $90,877 was paid out.
Rufai has agreed to repay the stolen funds, though it wasn’t clear how he would make payments or whether his agreement meant he still had access to the stolen funds.
“He has agreed to disclose all of his assets and to cooperate in US government efforts to recover on those assets,” U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Emily Langlie said in an email Wednesday. “At this point we don’t know what kind of recovery will result.”
Roughly $270 million stolen from the Employment Security Department is believed to have been transferred overseas before investigators or banks could freeze the funds, state officials have said. About $380 million has been recovered, ESD officials have said.
Rufai’s 2021 arrest came almost a year to the day after ESD officials announced the fraud, the biggest in state history, and said they would temporarily suspend unemployment benefit payments.
That suspension and the subsequent tightening of filing requirements contributed to massive delays in benefit payments to tens of thousands of Washingtonians laid off during the first weeks of the pandemic.
Rufai’s arrest revealed important details as to how criminals could bypass ESD’s security systems using a simple feature of Google’s free Gmail service.
Gmail allows account holders to create dozens of additional email addresses simply by adding periods to the original address, investigator have said. Because Gmail doesn’t recognize periods, any emails sent to those so-called dot variant addresses are all routed to the inbox of the original Gmail address.
Rufai used the dot variant addresses to create multiple accounts in the Washington state system that authenticates online users of government services, investigators have said. He then filed for benefits with the ESD using stolen personal identities of real Washington residents. One reason the ruse was effective is that any emails sent by ESD on behalf of these claimants were all routed to Rufai’s inbox.
Rufai’s plea, two years after his crime, highlights the challenges investigators have had in tracking down suspects in the fraud that struck ESD and most other states.
So far, just a handful of suspects have been charged in the ESD case. These include Chukwuemeka Onyegbula, a Nigerian IT engineer charged with stealing roughly $290,000 in benefits from ESD and from other states; Reyes De La Cruz III, a former ESD employee charged with stealing at least $360,000 in jobless benefits; and Seattle residents Bryan Alan Sparks, 40, and Autumn Gail Luna, 22, who were charged with stealing at least $500,000 in jobless benefits from ESD and $520,000 in Small Business Administration loans.
Prosecutors have agreed to recommend no more than six years in prison for Rufai, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Source: The Seattle News