UNDER “Operation Fox Hunt 2”, the Dubai police swooped in on them. In the raid, 47 phones, 15 USB drives, five hard drives and 21 laptops all containing 119,580 files, were taken in. They had information on 1,926,400 victims! In the raid in which Hushpuppi and 11 other people were arrested, Dubai authorities seized the equivalent of $41 million in cash and 13 luxury cars worth $7 million. The Dubai law enforcement handed over Hushpuppi and associates over to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). The Nigerian email scam is almost as old as the internet itself. Perhaps it is the longest running internet fraud out there. As soon as electronic mail (email) left the domain of the defence department and universities, criminally-inclined Nigerians took advantage of the Internet to push their scams. When the 419 letters began to fetch less victims, they moved on to romance scams on dating websites. These fraudsters create fake dating profiles, pretending to be looking for love. They spend time getting to know their victims and building trust. Once a level of trust is built, they pounce, asking for money by playing on their victims’ emotions.
As their ranks swell to include scam apprentices from Nigerian universities and jobless youths, their technical know-how on the use and manipulation of Internet protocol improved. They began phishing attacks on their targets. Phishing occurs when fake email are sent to unsuspecting people in an attempt to retrieve beneficial personal information or to infect their device with malware. Ismaila Mustapha, whose handle on Instagram is Mompha, Jacob Olalekan Ponle, known as Woodberry on Instagram and the grandmaster himself, Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, known as Hushpuppi, are specialists in a sophisticated phishing attack called Business Email Compromise (BEC). What the BEC attack does is to impersonate senior executives of companies and trick employees, customers or vendors into wiring payment for goods or services to bank accounts linked to Hushpuppi and his associates. Details from Woodberry’s and Hushpuppi’s long rapsheets prepared by the FBI, reveal how they carefully chose, researched and monitored their target victims and organisations. These organisations conduct wire transfers and have suppliers scattered across the globe.
Meanwhile, Hushpuppi and many in his trade attribute their “wealth” to successful careers as “real estate moguls or bitcoin entrepreneurs”. These well-heeled cyber criminals allegedly obtained corporate email accounts of company executives or high-level employees, whose jobs involve payment authorisations and wire transfers. They spoofed or compromised these accounts through phishing attacks, and thereafter undertake fraudulent transfers running into millions of dollars that end up in their accounts.
What is the price tag of these FBI takedown of Nigerian cross-border criminal gangs on Nigeria’s reputation? What impact will it have on forging business links and the ease of travel for Nigerians? Well, fraud is expensive in so many ways and the cost to Nigeria is, and will be, very steep. Their activities have ruined our reputation abroad, such that any email from a Nigerian is automatically trashed, telephone enquiries from those with discernible Nigerian accents get disconnected within a minute, resulting in lost economic opportunities. Those who manage to pull through, lose out once their names sound Nigerian. Many of our youths will never have a chance at collaboration with their foreign counterparts because of these scams. On the side of the victims, companies and investors lose billions, the individual they hit lose their life savings and retirement accounts.
It is widely known that Nigerians anywhere outside Nigeria are easily the most skilled immigrant community. Despite our education, the green passport is disrespected because of the negative stereotypes we face. Before the FBI’s arrest and indictment of many Nigerian cyber criminals in California in August 2019 made global headlines, the activities of Nigerian cyber-criminals were often the butt of mild jokes. Now, Nigerian criminals have earned their bonafides and are taken seriously like the Italian Mafia of old. Nigerians risk international backlash with these spates of arrests that neither education nor income will prevent. Illicit money and money laundering charges by these criminal networks is certainly bad for a country whose economy is buoyed by foreign remittances. The biggest cost of digital scam is what it has done to the psyche of young Nigerians. Mompha, Woodberry and Hushpuppi are heroes to the Nigerian ‘gram generation, which sees unearned income as God’s blessings.
Hushpuppi has over 2.4 million followers on Instagram, where he flaunts his cars, lifestyle and designer clothing. Unfortunately with all his Internet savvy, he had no idea that social media is part of the public record. Every information posted on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts is a rich sea of information that can be used as evidence in court. While tech savvy Nigerian youths are looking to lift millions of dollars from the accounts of foreign companies, their counterparts in Estonia, a country of only 1.3 million people are earning their stripes as the most digital in the world. Young Estonians are delivering high tech services as high prized digital nomads from their bedrooms in Estonia to the world. The wide gap between the rich and the poor, lack of economic opportunity and social mobility and Nigeria’s money driven national ethos has created a mindset of get-rich quick or die trying in the average Nigerian youth. Well, the rest of the world is unlike Nigeria where impunity reigns. You do the crime involving foreign jurisdictions, they will come after you.
White collar crimes are tough to crack for law enforcement because they constantly play catch-up, learning how the criminals operate, but the long arm of the law will eventually get those who commit crime. Even though criminals try to establish their enterprise as cross-border operations and shroud their operations as legitimate, sophisticated business transactions, they cannot outrun the law. Nations are happy to give cross-border cooperation to burst criminal networks within their borders. The arrest of Hushpuppi and associates is a warning to all the drug lords, cross-border fraudsters, and money launderers that you cannot escape the American Treasury department. Before this, the new FBI catch was Obinwanne Okeke alias Invictus Obi, who was so good at covering his tracks that he even made the Forbes 30 Under-30 list. As long as you pass through the world banking system, you will eventually be caught. The FBI is very patient. They do not pounce until you are neck deep in an ocean of evidence.
- Oladeji writes in from Lagos
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