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Scammer gets 5 years after targeting Washington's unemployment relief in early days of Covid

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A Nigerian citizen has been sentenced to five years in prison for his efforts to steal identities and scam hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic disaster relief. This includes more than $350,000 that was fraudulently obtained from Washington's Unemployment Security Department in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Abidemi Rufai, 45, pleaded guilty to federal charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in the spring. He was arrested in 2021 as he attempted to fly out of the country at New York’s JFK Airport. At the time, he was serving as a special assistant to the governor of Nigeria's Ogun state.

But according to the Department of Justice, Rufai also made a living scamming U.S. agencies using stolen identities. He specialized in disaster relief. In 2017, he submitted 49 disaster relief claims in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, ultimately receiving $6,500. His most successful scam was against Washington’s Unemployment Security Department amid the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. More than $350,000 was paid to the fake accounts.

“Mr. Rufai was relentless in his scheme to use the stolen identities of Americans for fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Brown in a statement. “He orchestrated ‘mystery shopper’ scams, business email compromise attempts, and filed fake tax returns to financially harm individuals and businesses. But when disaster struck, so did Mr. Rufai. Whether it was hurricane disaster relief, small business loans, or Covid unemployment benefits, he stole aid that should have gone to disaster victims in the United States.”

Rufai attempted to scam $2.4 million from the U.S. government over the past few years, which includes about $500,000 in pandemic unemployment benefits. He used more than 20,000 stolen American identities in his attempts. He also used the identities to submit fraudulent applications with the Small Business Administration in order to obtain Economic Injury Disaster loans. The SBA paid out $10,000 to those applications. He also submitted unemployment claims in 17 other states.

“The Employment Security Department deeply appreciates the tireless efforts of the Department of Justice, federal agencies and law enforcement in this matter,” said Cami Feek, Washington's commissioner for the Employment Security Department. “We always stand ready to hold those accountable who steal public funds and we appreciate the partnership in catching and prosecuting this individual.”

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