Tuesday, September 15, 2020 1:18 pm
Ramon Igbalode Abbas, alias Hushpuppi, achieves his life ambition of making it big. The only trouble is that he lands in police net for alleged wire crimes
By Ayorinde Oluokun
In one of his most popular photographs, Ramon Igbalode Abbas, otherwise known as “Hushpuppi” and “The Billionaire Gucci Master,” was pictured sitting in a private jet, reading a copy of Forbes, a global magazine with focus on business, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle. Before he was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI last year, Obinwanne Okeke, also known as Invictus, Hushpuppi’s compatriot, had been featured on the Forbes 30-under-30 cover of the magazine cover as one of the rising young business leaders in the Africa.
Perhaps, like Okeke, Hushpuppi. had hopes of also ‘scamming’ his way into gaining recognition of the publishers of the magazine. But instead, Hushpuppi landed in the custody of law enforcement agencies when he was arrested in a sting operation by security operatives in Dubai, United Arab Emirate on 10 June 2020.
He was arrested alongside 12 others as part of an investigation into money-laundering, cyber fraud, hacking and scamming targeted at companies and individuals in an operation, codenamed Fox Hunt 2, coordinated by the FBI, Interpol and Dubai police.
According to Dubai Police, about $40m in cash, 13 luxury cars worth $6.8m, 21 computers, 47 smartphones and the addresses of nearly two million alleged victims were recovered from the residence of Hushpuppi and his accomplices during the overnight raid which came after months of investigation into the group’s activities.
From the Slum of Lagos To Luxurious Life of Dubai.
The 38 years old Nigerian, a former trader in second hand clothes in Lagos, was arrested after he increased his fleet of luxury cars with a white Rolls Royce.
Hushpuppi, who grew up in Oworonsoki area of Lagos has never hidden the fact that he was not born with the proverbial silver spoon. Indeed, he takes pride in touting himself as typical grass to grace story, but was able to escape poverty despite having a taxi driver father and a mother selling bread by the roadside.
He said his story should give hope to “every underprivileged kid of the world and especially of Nigeria and of Lagos and of Bariga and of Oworonshoki — where a landlord had chased me and my family out of a rented room.”
Hushpuppi’s acquaintances told journalists how he was roaming the streets of Lagos, looking for cars to wash for a paltry N100, and surviving on street food just about 15 years ago. They said he launched out on ‘making it big’ when he began to engage in small time internet fraud in his Lagos home before he decided to relocate completely to Dubai.
In a video which went viral after his arrest, Hushpuppi, said his “story” should inspire and give hope to Nigerians who are “suffering” because of widespread hunger and poverty.
Giving examples of the grinding poverty that marked his early life, he once revealed in a video that he got hit by a commercial motorcycle and lost his younger sister and a step-mother because of poverty and illness. “I no enjoy one single enjoyment from government, my papa no enjoy one enjoyment. For my own generation, I am the only one that has escaped from poverty,” he said.
In another video, Hushpuppi celebrated the changes that have taken place in his life. In the video, he was seen inside a Rolls-Royce headed towards the airport where a private jet was waiting to fly him to Paris. “Thank you, Jesus!” he said inside the luxury car. Another Rolls-Royce was carrying his luggage to the plane. “This life is too good to be real. Paris, I am coming in a private jet. Paris, stand up, for the real one is coming through,” he said in the video which also showed him arriving at Paris–Le Bourget Airport and checking into a 5-star hotel, Four Seasons Hotels, Paris.
Jamal Salem Al Jallaf, director of the criminal investigation department of Dubai Police, said security operatives tracked the Hushpuppi gang after verifying available information. He noted that the gang members including ‘Hushpuppi’, celebrated their wealth via social media, under a businessman facade, in an attempt to lure victims from all over the world: “The suspects also targeted victims overseas by creating fake websites for well-known companies and banks in a bid to steal victims’ credit card information and then launder the stolen money.”
Busting Huspuppi’s Crime Gang
Hushpuppi was extradited to the United States where he is currently facing charges of money laundering filed against him by federal prosecutors. Complaints filed against him revealed that he attracted attention of law enforcement agencies through the flamboyant life style he displayed on his social media handles where he had over 2.4 million followers.
FBI said Abbas regularly posts his pictures in social media wearing designer clothes, expensive watches, and posing in or with luxury cars and charter jets.
“The FBI’s investigation has revealed that Abbas finances this opulent lifestyle through crime, and that he is one of the leaders of a transnational network that facilitates computer intrusions, fraudulent schemes (including BEC schemes), and money laundering, targeting victims around the world in schemes designed to steal hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to the affidavit.
FBI said Abbas was a “key player” in a large conspiracy that purportedly provided “safe havens for stolen money around the world.” The FBI was able to obtain records from Abbas Google, Apple iCloud, Instagram and Snapchat accounts which allegedly contained banking information, passports, communication with conspirators and records of wire transfers.
Quartz Africa further revealed that the FBI discovered Abbas and his social media handle through two co-conspirators, one not a Nigerian, but was coordinating mules working for the group, using a UAE number saved as “Hush” tied to the Snapchat username “hushpuppi5.”
The Bureau also reviewed Hushpuppi’s Instagram account. Abbas mentioned the same Snapchat username and claims to be a real estate developer on the account. By matching posts in the account to photos from Abbas’s passports and other identification documents, the detectives gained insight into Huspuppi’s lifestyle of “substantial wealth” while he tormented his followers over the years.
In addition, FBI detectives were able to trail Hushpuppi’s messages and his Dubai residence at the Palazzo Versace and were able to connect his chat histories, phone contacts and email addresses, through information sourced from Snap Inc., Instagram and Apple.
He never hid his extravagance from his followers. In one of his posts on Instagram, he claimed, “Started out my day having sushi down at Nobu in Monte Carlo, Monaco, then decided to book a helicopter to have … facials at the Christian Dior spa in Paris then ended my day having champagne in Gucci.”
Hushpuppi, according to reports, also renewed his lease for another year at the exclusive Palazzo Versace apartments in Dubai where he was arrested using his real name and phone number, thus further blowing his own cover.
Hushpuppi was arrested alongside Olalekan Jacob Ponle, popularly known as “Mr Woodberry” to his Instagram followers, who, like his principal, also engaged in a flamboyant display of wealth on his social media accounts. A month before his arrest, Ponle had posted a picture on his Instagram page where he posed near a bright yellow Lamborghini, decked in designer jewellery and Gucci clothes. “Stop letting people make you feel guilty for the wealth you’ve acquired,” he said.
Like Abbas, Ponle has also been extradited to the US and charged in a Chicago court with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and laundering hundreds of millions of dollars obtained from cybercrimes. Detectives said the two men gave away important information about their identities and activities with their Instagram and Snapchat posts. “I think there’s probably a certain arrogance when they believe they’ve been careful about maintaining anonymity in their online identities, but they live high on the hog and get careless on social media,” BBC quoted Glen Donath, a former senior prosecutor in the US Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC as saying.
The media organization also reported that on Instagram, Hushpuppi said he was a real estate developer and had a category of videos called “Flexing” – social media lingo for showing off. But the “houses” were actually a code word for bank accounts “used to receive proceeds of a fraudulent scheme,” according to detectives.
His Fraud Scheme
Abbas and his colleagues were involved in Business E-Mail Compomise, BEC which, according to FBI involves a computer hacker gaining unauthorized access to a business’ email account, blocking or redirecting communications to and/or from that email account, and then using the compromised email account or a separate fraudulent email account to communicate with personnel from a victim company and to attempt to trick them into making an unauthorized wire transfer. “BEC schemes are one of the most difficult cybercrimes we encounter as they typically involve a coordinated group of con artists scattered around the world who have experience with computer hacking and exploiting the international financial system,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “This case targets a key player in a large, transnational conspiracy who was living an opulent lifestyle in another country while allegedly providing safe havens for stolen money around the world.”
Paul Delacourt, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office said in 2019 that the Bureau recorded $1.7 billion in losses by companies and individuals that had fallen victim to email compromise scams, the type Hushpuppi conducts from abroad.
He added that the arrest of Huspuppi had helped taken a major BEC player offline. “This was a challenging case, one that spanned international boundaries, traditional financial systems and the digital sphere,” said Jesse Baker, Special Agent in Charge of the United States Secret Service, Los Angles Field Office. “Technology has essentially erased geographic boundaries leaving trans-national criminal syndicates to believe that they are beyond the reach of law enforcement. The success in this case was the direct result of our trusted partnerships between the Department of Justice and our federal law enforcement colleagues. These partnerships helped dismantle a sophisticated organized crime group that preyed upon unsuspecting businesses.”
The Case Against Hushpuppi/Woodberry
In the case filed against them in US courts, FBI alleged that Abbas and others defrauded a client of a New York-based law firm of approximately $922,857 in October 2019 by tricking one of the law firm’s paralegals into wiring money intended for the client’s real estate refinancing to a bank account that was controlled by them.
Also, Abbas allegedly conspired to launder $14.7 million stolen from a bank in February 2019, in which the stolen money was sent to bank accounts around the world. According to FBI, Abbas allegedly provided a co-conspirator with two bank accounts in Europe that could each receive €5 million (about $5.6 million) of the stolen funds.
In another complaint, FBI accussed Abbas and others of conspiring to launder hundreds of millions of dollars from other fraudulent schemes and computer intrusions, including attempt to steal £100 million from an English Premier League soccer club.
Ponle, who uses Mark Kain in emails, according to the FBI, was accused of defrauding a Chicago-based company into sending wire transfers of $15.2m.
Companies in Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New York, and California were also said to have fallen victim to his fraud schemes. He allegedly asked his accomplices, called money mules, to convert the money into the cryptocurrency bitcoin.
Abbas who was initially detained in Chicago when he arrived at the United States has hired a Chicago-based law firm, Pissetzky& Berliner to defend him. The lawyer, Gal Pissetzky told Forbes that his client was not a fraudster as being portrayed. “Mr Abbas is an Instagram personality. A social media personality. Of course, he poses with high price items because that’s what he gets paid to do. That’s what he has built from growing up very poor in Nigeria, he was able to develop himself into this very well-known personality with millions of followers on Instagram. He is an influencer — that is what my kids would call him — an influencer. And people seeing him with these Louis Vuitton bags or clothes, or Gucci bags and clothes, or these fancy cars and they go and want them. They wanna buy them. That’s a job today. As much as it’s hard to imagine — that’s a full-time job,” Mr Pissetzky said.
Hushpuppi was first arraigned in a Chicago court over allegations that he was of a network that stole hundreds of millions of dollars from business email compromise frauds and other scams to fund his extravagant lifestyle.
The Court denied him bail as well as his request to stay with his girlfriend’s uncle in Homewood, Illinois while the trial lasted, Forbes reported. The Judge ordered his transfer to Los Angeles for trial.
Woodberry pleaded not guilty to charges of wire fraud when he was arraigned before Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cummings of the US Court in Illinois on 25 July.
He was accused of misleading US companies in Iowa, Michigan, New York and California into sending money in the tune of millions of dollars.
The trial of the 29-years-old Nigerian who is remanded in the custody of the United States Marshals Service will continue. If convicted of the crime, he may spend the next 20 years in prison.
Huspuppi also faces 20 years in jail if he is found guilty of the four-count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering conspiracies, international money laundering and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity filed against him in California, United States late last month.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges and he was to appear alongside his counsel before District Judge Otis D. Wright II by 9 a.m on 13 October ahead of his trial that day.
Ayorinde Oluokun, the Deputy Editor of TheNEWS, has been reporting business, life and politics for the magazine for two decades