A Nigerian man suspected in Washington state’s $650 million unemployment fraud has been arrested at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport by federal agents as he allegedly attempted to leave the country.
Abidemi Rufai, of Lekki, Nigeria, appeared in federal court Saturday on charges that he used the identities of more than 100 Washington residents to steal more than $350,000 in unemployment benefits from the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
“This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud,” said Tessa Gorman, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, in a statement Monday.
The federal complaint also provides a detailed glimpse into the scale of the pandemic-related fraud and the methods — some of them surprisingly unsophisticated — fraudsters used to pilfer unemployment systems in Washington and other states.
Rufai, 42, is scheduled for a detention hearing Wednesday. The case will be prosecuted in federal court in Tacoma.
“I want to thank our partners in law enforcement for their continued efforts to hold criminals accountable for their attacks on our unemployment insurance system,” said ESD Acting Commissioner Cami Feek in a statement Monday.
Rufai was represented by an assistant federal public defender at Saturday’s hearing.
Rufai was arrested almost a year after state officials announced they were temporarily suspending unemployment benefit payments after discovering that criminals had used stolen Social Security numbers and other personal information to file bogus claims for federal and state unemployment benefits, Seattle Times reports.
Within days, ESD officials disclosed that “hundreds of millions of dollars” had likely been stolen in a fraud scheme that law enforcement officials and cybercrime experts said was partly based in Nigeria, involving a criminal ring nicknamed “Scattered Canary.”
Washington was among the first states to be hit by a wave of fraud that would eventually strike dozens of states and siphon off billions of dollars in federal aid meant for pandemic victims.
Rufai, who used the alias Sandy Tang, is also suspected of defrauding unemployment programs in Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Federal officials acknowledged that Rufai’s presence in the United States probably was unusual in the unemployment fraud scheme. Many of the fraudulent claims that hit the ESD were likely filed from outside the United States, according to the complaint.
The federal complaint also offers a detailed explanation of how Rufai — and presumably others — allegedly bypassed security systems at the ESD using a simple feature of Google’s free Gmail service.
Federal investigators initially identified Rufai through a single Gmail account he used to file 102 claims for pandemic-related unemployment benefits from the ESD, as well as claims at programs in other states, according to the complaint.