A former Nigerian official was sentenced to five years for what prosecutors called a “litany of scams” that took in more than $600,000 in public and private funds, including Washington unemployment benefits intended for pandemic victims. 

Abidemi Rufai, 45, of Lekki, Nigeria, was sentenced Monday in federal court in Tacoma for crimes ranging from $350,763 in pandemic unemployment fraud to filing bogus federal tax returns and theft of federal disaster relief money. Prosecutors had asked for nearly six years, along with restitution of $604,260 for multiple counts of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for Rufai.

The sentence “sends a strong message that these foreign actors who are abroad cannot just simply hide anonymously behind keyboards and that they can be brought to justice in the United States,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Cindy Chang, who handles COVID fraud for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle.

Rufai, one of the first suspects arrested in Washington’s $650 million unemployment fraud, was detained in May 2021 at John F. Kennedy International Airport as he allegedly tried to fly back to Nigeria. He had briefly served as an aide to Adedapo Abiodun, governor of Ogun State in Nigeria, before reportedly being suspended following his arrest. 

Among other crimes, Rufai was charged with using stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data to file dozens of fake claims for pandemic unemployment benefits in Washington and other states. Benefits from those claims were wired into bank accounts either controlled by Rufai or by accomplices known as “money mules.”

A pattern of scam and fraud

In sentencing documents, prosecutors detailed a pattern of fraud and scams dating back to at least 2017. Rufai used stolen identities of 49 residents of Texas and Florida to file for federal disaster relief for hurricanes Irma and Harvey, according to filings. 

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Rufai also allegedly ran a “mystery shopper” scam, in which he sent counterfeit checks to accomplices who were instructed to deposit the funds 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 detail to earlier government characterizations of Rufai as a big-spender using ill-gotten gains to fund a life of unearned luxury and status. 

During a visit to the U.S. in 2020, Rufai appears to have used fraud proceeds to buy a luxury Mercedes SUV for $71,620 and shipped it to Nigeria, prosecutors said. At the time of his arrest, Rufai was wearing a Cartier watch and was ticketed for a business class flight to Nigeria.

Rufai must also pay $604,260 in restitution, but federal officials expect they may see less than $100,000, given that most of Rufai’s remaining assets are likely no longer in the U.S. “It’s really hard to get foreign assets … in Nigeria,” said Assistant U.S Attorney Seth Wilkinson, co-counsel in the case.

Rufai’s defense attorney, Lance Hester, had asked for a 30-month sentence due to extenuating circumstances that included a “gambling addiction” and “a childhood exposed to untreated trauma” in a country infamous for “government and leadership corruption,” according to defense sentencing filings.

Hester also argued sentencing guidelines in such cases are inconsistent and that defendants charged with substantially larger frauds often have received shorter sentences than prosecutors want for Rufai.

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Rufai asked to serve his sentence at Fort Dix, New Jersey, which Judge Benjamin Settle agreed to recommend, but the decision will be made by the Bureau of Prisons, said a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney.

Security lapses

Rufai’s case offered an embarrassing window into security lapses during the pandemic at the Employment Security Department and other state unemployment agencies, which succumbed to a fraud scheme that was remarkably low tech. 

According to federal investigators, Rufai had filed dozens of fake unemployment claims at ESD using a single Gmail account. A feature of Gmail allows account holders to create dozens of additional email addresses simply adding one or more periods to the original address.

Because the Gmail system 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.

At the time of Rufai’s arrest, ESD officials declined to say whether the agency’s systems had detected dot-variant email addresses during the wave of fraud that hit Washington and other states in early 2020, or whether it has since upgraded its claims system to block similar claims.

“For security reasons, we can’t comment on what our systems do or do not screen for,” said then-ESD spokesman Nick Demerice. “I can say that we learned a lot from the initial attack on our system and make continuous improvements to avoid additional loses.”

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But while the dot variants appear to have evaded ESD’s security, they also allowed federal investigators to track Rufai.

“This guy thought that 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.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Assistant U.S Attorney Seth Wilkinson’s name.