A senior special assistant to Governor Dapo Abiodun of Ogun State, Abidemi Rufai, has been arrested in the United States (US) for alleged identity theft and fraud.
The 42-year-old former House of Representatives aspirant and businessman is accused of fraudulently stealing more than $350,000 in unemployment claims from Washington State, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
Rufai, whom FBI agents recognised from social media accounts and images from US Customs and Border Patrol, was arrested on Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, while trying to leave the country.
Attorneys said Rufai stole the identities of more than 100 people in Washington State to funnel unemployment benefits into his own bank account from the Washington State’s Employment Security Department(ESD).
Investigators said Rufai used small variations in email addresses in a Gmail account, which made it appear like he was multiple people, to slip through fraud detection at ESD.
But investigators said Gmail addresses do not recognize periods, so anything sent to the different addresses went straight to Rufai’s inbox.
The criminal complaint alleges that Rufai used the stolen identities of more than 100 Washington residents to file fraudulent claims with ESD for pandemic-related unemployment benefits.
He also filed fraudulent unemployment claims with Hawaii, Wyoming, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, and Pennsylvania.
“Rufai used variations of a single e-mail address in a manner intended to evade automatic detection by fraud systems. By using this practice, Rufai made it appear that each claim was connected with a different email account.
“Rufai caused the fraud proceeds to be paid out to online payment accounts such as ‘Green Dot’ accounts, or wired to bank accounts controlled by ‘money mules. Some of the proceeds were then mailed to the Jamaica, New York address of Rufai’s relative,” DOJ said.
Law enforcement agents uncovered more than $288,000 deposited into an American bank account controlled by Rufai between March and August 2020.
“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. This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud,”said Acting U.S. Attorney Gorman
An IT security expert who was out of work during the pandemic, Tommy Parker, said: “I am certain that they’re all connected.”
He said someone who stole his identity was also stealing his benefits for months.
“They made my life miserable when not only did I have to prove I didn’t get that money, but then I actually needed my insurance money, and I couldn’t get that either,” he told a Local New York paper
Parker believes Rufai and others were tipped off that security was weak or disabled at the Employment Security Department.
“There is no doubt in my mind. You don’t undertake an operation of this scope without assurances that it’s going to work!” Parker said.
Parker believes the arrest of Rufai could be a game-changer.
The state of Washington confirmed it paid fraudsters $642,954 and only recovered $369,789 of that amount.
Wire fraud is punishable by up to 30 years in prison when it relates to benefits paid in connection with a presidentially-declared disaster or emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.