Abidemi Rufai, 42, of Lekki, Nigeria has been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Nigerian citizen was charged with wire fraud, which is punishable by up to 30 in jail when it relates to benefits paid in connection with a presidentially declared disaster or emergency, such as the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Using the alias Sandy Tang, Rufai allegedly stole more than $350,000 in unemployment benefits from the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) by filing 102 jobless claims in Washington, United States. In 2020, the state lost $646 million in unemployment fraud, $369 million of which has been reclaimed.
“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,” acting U.S. attorney Tessa M. Gorman stated. “This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud.”
Aside from Washington, Rufai also filed fraudulent unemployment claims with other states namely Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania and Wyoming. To make it look like each claim was connected with a different email account, he used variations of a single Gmail account in a manner intended to evade automatic detection by fraud systems.
In 2019, Rufai listed the same Gmail account on his visa application. The Lekki native was in the U.S. from February 19, 2020 to August 9, 2020.
Some of the fraud proceeds were mailed to Rufai’s brother in Jamaica, New York. From March 3, 2020 to August 2, 2020, $288,825 was deposited into a Citibank checking account, which he controlled.
In January 2021, a federal judge issued a warrant to Google, allowing investigators to search Rufai’s Gmail account. The email and banking tactics he allegedly used appear to link him with Scattered Canary, a Nigerian crime organization.
On the evening of May 14, 2021, FBI agents arrested Rufai at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. He made his initial appearance on May 15, 2021 in New York.
On May 19, 2021, Rufai’s case will be prosecuted in federal court in Tacoma, Washington. After his arrest he was suspended as a senior special assistant to Dapo Abiodun, 60, who has been the governor of Ogun, Nigeria since May 29, 2019.
“Our position is that the law should take its course,” Abiodun’s chief press secretary Kunle Somorin told the Premium Times. “Meanwhile, the governor has ordered his immediate suspension from office to answer charges against him.”