Barely a month after a Nigerian citizen was arrested in connection with last year’s $650 million unemployment fraud scheme in Washington state, a second Nigerian man has been indicted on strikingly similar charges.
Federal prosecutors say Chukwuemeka Onyegbula, a 38-year-old IT engineer at a Nigerian oil company, used stolen identities and a simple email hack to make off with roughly $290,000 in unemployment insurance benefits from Washington and other states, and around $50,000 in federal disaster loans, according to an indictment returned Wednesday in federal district court in Tacoma.
Onyegbula, who used the alias Phillip Carter, was arrested June 3 by Nigerian authorities and is being detained in Nigeria, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle. An earlier federal filing indicated that prosecutors hope to bring Onyegbula, a resident of Lagos, to the United States, but the spokesperson declined to comment on any extradition process.
It was also unclear whether Onyegbula, who faces charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and multiple accounts of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, has an attorney.
Wednesday’s indictment follows the May 15 arrest of another Nigerian man, Abidemi Rufai, in a New York airport on charges of using stolen identities to pilfer $350,000 in jobless benefits from Washington state. Rufai, a suspended Nigerian government official, is seeking to be released on bail while awaiting federal trial in Tacoma.
Although the latest indictment does not link Onyegbula to Rufai, charging documents suggest he employed similar techniques to steal the funds.
Notably, like Rufai, Onyegbula used a feature of Gmail, Google’s free email service, to file multiple claims for benefits with the Washington state Employment Security Department and other states, according to the indictment.
Holders of a single Gmail account can create dozens of additional email addresses simply by 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.
According to prosecutors, Onyegbula and unnamed co-conspirators used his original Gmail address, email@example.com, to create dozens of variants such as firstname.lastname@example.org.
Onyegbula and co-conspirators used the email addresses along with stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data to file at least 253 unemployment claims with the ESD and unemployment agencies in Arizona, California and 14 other states, prosecutors say. At least $289,604 in benefits were paid out on those claims, according to a June 7 complaint.
Onyegbula and co-conspirators used a similar approach in filing at least 63 applications for so-called Economic Injury Disaster Loans through the federal Small Business Administration, according to the complaint. Those applications netted Onyegbula and his co-conspirators at least $53,900, prosecutors say.
The status of the stolen funds remains under investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s spokesperson said.
Of the roughly $643 million stolen from the ESD last year, $370 million was recovered, according to the latest Washington state audit of the fraud.
Investigators said they also found indications that the email@example.com account was used to seek fraudulent tax refunds. That’s potentially another parallel with Rufai, who also attempted to defraud the Internal Revenue Service of nearly $1.6 million, according to a May 28 federal filing.
But as with Rufai’s case, Onyegbula’s Gmail account also appears to have helped federal investigators track him down.
According to the complaint, the Gmail account contained information about a bank account in Onyegbula’s name, his U.S. visa application, and a work email from a Nigerian-based oil company, Pan Ocean Oil Corporation Nigeria Limited.
A LinkedIn profile lists an individual named Chukwuemeka Onyegbula as an “associate IT system engineer” at Pan Ocean Oil Corporation, and as a 2005 graduate in computer engineering from the University of Benin.
This case is being investigated by the FBI, with assistance from the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General and the Department of Justice and the cooperation of the ESD.