From Low Life to High Flier: How Hushpuppi Got Transformed in Kuala Lumpur

From Low Life to High Flier: How Hushpuppi Got Transformed in Kuala Lumpur

Sunday, July 4, 2021 6:00 am


Hushpuppi enjoying breakfast

*Exotic Lifestyle of Huspuppi and How He Was Caught

 

The story you are about to read is that of Ramon Abbas, Hushpuppi for style, who once set the Internet on fire by his humongous heist and his out of this world lifestyle. From a lowly life in Oworonshoki part of Lagos, he dreamed that he would make it big in life. Thus, he disappeared to Kuala Lumpur where his life got transformed into higher crime and wealth orbit. According to a report by Bloomberg:

“Sometime around 2014, his dreams lured him out of Lagos to Kuala Lumpur, part of what Oyenuga describes as “an exodus of young Yahoo Boys from Nigeria to Malaysia, to the U.S., to the U.K., and to India.” Oyenuga says he thinks that Abbas managed his money better than many of his compatriots and that he left for a base from which it was simpler to operate online. “He went to study, he told me,” says Sikiru Adekoya, a childhood friend of Abbas’s who goes by Pac. “When he left for Malaysia, we lost contact.”

Once on his feet in Kuala Lumpur, Abbas transformed into @hushpuppi, picking up the Instagram handle he’d claimed in 2012 but rarely used. Many of his early photos were taken in a modest apartment kitchen, but he had a natural presence on camera. The photos most often framed him from head to toe, his left leg slightly ahead of the right to show his full outfit, shoes included. His smile, usually mouth closed with eyes alight, was confident, ambitious, a little sly. Soon he was getting thousands of likes per post, and his captions began to reflect his own flavor of prosperity gospel. He included bits of wisdom on living your best life and mini-lectures about how far he’d already come—and how others could do the same.

Read the story, as published in Bloomberg

 

The Fall of the Billionaire Gucci Master

By

Authorities say Ramon Abbas, aka Hushpuppi, perfected a simple internet scam and laundered millions of dollars. His past says a lot about digital swagger, and the kinds of stories that get told online.

For Ramon Abbas, the Instagram influencer popularly known as Ray Hushpuppi, @hushpuppi, Hush, or the Billionaire Gucci Master, birthdays were always a time for reflection. Reflection and extravagance—but then, extravagance was Hushpuppi’s brand, a 365-days-a-year affair, a way of being. On Oct. 11, 2019, the day he turned 37, he was living in a penthouse apartment at the Palazzo Versace Dubai, with a private pool and hot tub on his lanai. A typical @hushpuppi post on Instagram, where he had more than 2 million followers, featured Abbas smiling in front of one of his Ferraris or Rolls-Royces, kicking back in his seat on a private jet, or exiting a designer store with a passel of rope-handled bags—#Hermes, #Fendi, #LouisVuitton. His look was always flawless: never the same outfit twice, #Gucci more often than not. You don’t become the Billionaire Gucci Master any other way.

Even back in 2019, there were questions about how much money Abbas really had and how exactly he’d acquired it. In Nigeria, where he was born, his Instagram presence had turned him into a celebrity adjacent to the biggest names in pop culture. He’d appeared on social media with pop idols Davido and WizKid and soccer players on English clubs like Chelsea and Man City. But Abbas’s wealth was the constant subject of rumors. In the flourishing ecosystem of Nigerian gossip blogs he was “a Nigerian big boy,” shorthand for an online fraudster, or “Yahoo Boy,” who’d struck it rich and showed it off. Abbas dismissed the talk as the jealousy of so many haters, disappointed with their own lives and determined to bring down a self-made man who’d left them all behind.

Whatever the truth, on his 37th birthday, before heading off to a party in his honor in the VIP lounge at the Dubai Burberry store, Abbas paused to acknowledge the fans who’d supported him on his journey from hustling kid to global influencer. “As I turn a year older into my 30s today, I want to celebrate all of you out there,” he wrote on Instagram. The caption accompanied a photo of Abbas in a designer blue track suit, standing in front of a giant sculpture of a Rolls-Royce hood ornament. “Those of you who mostly I have never met, spoken to or anything but have been a strong supporter of me through every situation until this point and still riding for me, I want you to know wherever you are that I celebrate and appreciate you today, today is OUR DAY!”

Several celebrity blogs printed his appreciation in full. The next day, Tammy Abraham, the English striker who’d recently made his debut for Chelsea, posted a photo of Hushpuppi captioned “Happy birthday to my big bro for yesterday????.” Around the same time, Abbas was giving a guided tour of his home to a popular Nigerian radio personality named Daddy Freeze. (“What I was trying to achieve with that interview was something close to MTV Cribs,” Freeze told me recently.) With Freeze filming, they wandered through the penthouse as Abbas showed off his clothes and sneaker collections, and went down to the garage to visit the Rolls and Ferraris. “I have four jacuzzis in this house, a sauna, my private pool,” Abbas told the viewers back home. The apartment, he said, cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars for a year.”

When the pair sat down for dinner, they talked at length about online haters, religion, and family. Money came up only when Abbas asserted that he often made charitable contributions that never appeared on his feed. “My heart is pure. I do a lot of good that even a lot of social media don’t have to know about,” he said. “I sleep good at night. When something good happens to me, I know it’s because I did good. Not because somebody promised me money that I did not work for, or money that I don’t deserve.”

What does it mean to deserve such fortune as Hushpuppi’s? What type of work is commensurate with the riches of private jets and $5,000 handbags? The Billionaire Gucci Master had his answers to these questions, but so, too, did the FBI—answers that would form the basis of United States of America v. Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, the criminal case filed against him in a California federal court.

Just three days after his dinner with Daddy Freeze, the U.S. government has alleged, Abbas found another reason to celebrate. According to the federal indictments of him and his alleged co-conspirator, on Oct. 15, 2019, a Chase Bank account Abbas controlled in the U.S. received a wire transfer for $922,857.76. Sent by a New York law firm, the money was meant to be a payment owed to one of its clients, who’d refinanced a piece of real estate at Citizens Bank. When a paralegal at the firm, identified only as K.C., emailed to confirm where the wire should be sent, she received a fax telling her to direct the payment to Chase instead. K.C. called a phone number on the fax to confirm the details and, when everything seemed to match up, initiated the transfer.

In truth, everything did not match up. The fax and phone call had come not from K.C.’s client but, according to court documents, from someone in the orbit of Abbas—perhaps Abbas himself—who’d inserted himself in the middle of the transaction. The gambit was part of what’s known as a “business email compromise,” or BEC, attack: a lucrative, varied, and elusive scam the government claims Abbas and his co-conspirators have executed around the world. BEC scams are increasingly common and exceedingly difficult to stop.

From the Chase account, more than a third of the money was wired to an account at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. The rest was moved to different bank accounts. On Oct. 17, Abbas allegedly sent an image of the $396,000 transfer to a Canadian American from Toronto named Ghaleb Alaumary, who authorities say was his partner in previous BEC-like scams. The government says that Alaumary, Abbas, and a loose online confederation of other figures—a group that at times included North Korean state-sponsored hackers—targeted hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts from businesses and banks, including more than $100 million from a single Premier League soccer club.

Alaumary messaged a third person to check that the money had arrived in Canada. When the transfer was confirmed, he messaged Abbas again.

 

“Sup bro,” Abbas responded.

 

“Confo u sent me today,” Alaumary said.

 

“Money came in?” Abbas asked.

 

“Yes. For Canada.”

 

“Give me a screenshot.”

Alaumary promised one. He was on a plane that had just landed, he said, and he’d send the image as soon as he had a strong enough signal. But the confirmation never came. Moments later, the FBI approached Alaumary at the airport and placed him under arrest.

Successful BEC scams, such as the ones Alaumary and Abbas stand accused of, always come off a bit like a magic trick. Phil in accounting—or K.C. the paralegal, in the Abbas case—receives an invoice, logs in to a payment system, and sends off what seems like a routine payment. Then—poof!—the money is gone, having seemingly evaporated en route to its intended destination. The client of K.C.’s firm didn’t notice the money was missing until later in October.

BEC attacks started appearing roughly a half-dozen years ago, escalating each year until they surpassed all other forms of internet fraud. The FBI reports there were almost 20,000 such scams against American businesses in 2020 alone, accounting for $1.8 billion in losses, though the variety of BEC crimes can make totals hard to pin down. Crane Hassold, the senior director of threat research at the cyberdefense company Agari Data Inc. and a former FBI analyst, likes to define a BEC as “a response-based impersonation attack that’s requesting something of value”—basically, posing as a legitimate business to trick people into giving away their money.

 

No matter the flavor, a BEC scam generally begins with someone hacking into a corporate email account often using social engineering tactics like phishing. Once inside, the perpetrators don’t steal anything, not at first. Instead they quietly begin forwarding copies of incoming and outgoing email to themselves. Then they wait. “They watch it for a number of weeks or months, looking for details of certain payments that are going out, understanding who their customers are, looking at communication patterns,” Hassold says. When they spot an invoice coming in or out, they “use that intelligence to insert themselves into an actual payment that is supposed to be due.”

From there the scam can work two ways: If the scammers have compromised the email of the intended recipient of the payment, they simply create an invoice identical to the real one, swapping in their own bank account details, and resend it from the recipient’s email (often with apologies for the mix-up). If, on the other hand, they’ve compromised the sender, they might send a follow-up invoice from a “spoofed” email that appears at first glance to match the payee’s, or even create an entire company and website, one letter off from the real one. In either case, Phil in accounting sees an email that, without careful scrutiny, matches the ones he receives every day.

To the rest of us, it can seem absurd that a corporate employee could send millions of dollars to the wrong bank account. “These attacks are so realistic-looking, most people don’t give it a second thought,” Hassold says. “Because when you’re involved in payments like these, you see a lot of these emails every single day. And when it doesn’t raise any red flags, you are not going to go up the chain and do any confirmation. One would expect that when you get into larger and larger and larger amounts of money that are exchanging hands, that there would be some process that requires secondary authorization or something like that. But in many cases, that’s not what actually happens.”

Among the scammers, meanwhile, there tends to exist a hierarchy of loosely networked players, most of whom take a small cut of the total funds. There are those who are expert at breaking into email accounts in the first place—“hackers,” let’s call them, though they may not actually do any technical hacking to get in. There are the “money mules,” often locals who’ve been tricked into opening bank accounts, through romance scams and other ruses. Above them are what Hassold calls “loaders” and the law calls money launderers: the people controlling international accounts that can accept millions of dollars in transfers and then reroute the money around the world to be harvested by heist organizers.

For a crime that causes more losses than any other form of internet fraud—40% of the cybercrime take in the U.S., according to the FBI—BECs retain a strangely low profile. Only the largest cases tend to break out of the tech and security press. This is partly because BECs are humiliating for corporate victims. What New York law firm wants to risk its clients’ trust, after all, by disclosing that it unwittingly paid millions of dollars to a random fraudster overseas?

Despite the money in play, the crime can seem technical and pedestrian compared with the high-stakes drama of holding a hospital or gas pipeline cyberhostage for ransom. “I think that most people think of BEC attacks as just basic, boring attacks, and most people don’t think it’s as big a problem as it actually is,” Hassold says. “When you look at the amount of money that is actually lost to ransomware, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s lost in BEC attacks.”

BECs are now a worldwide phenomenon, with networked online gangs springing up everywhere from the U.S. to Russia to Brazil. But while the scam’s origins are unclear, the cybersecurity industry broadly assumes it began in Nigeria, because many perpetrators have been traced there. “A lot of the same concepts that go into these BEC attacks, criminals and scammers in West Africa have been doing for decades at this point,” Hassold says. “Those were all individually targeted social engineering attacks. And essentially what happened was, around 2015, cybercriminals started seeing that they could make more money targeting businesses than they could targeting individuals.”

When he was still posting regularly, Abbas spoke often about growing up in Oworonshoki, or Oworo as locals call it, on the western edge of Lagos Lagoon. His father, a Muslim, worked as a taxi driver, and his mother, a Christian, sold bread. Over his dinner with Daddy Freeze in 2019, Hushpuppi said he’d gravitated toward Islam, but his parents never pressured him to choose between faiths—he has a cross tattooed on one bicep, a Koranic passage on the other.

It’s natural for reporters to ask whether there’s some key in the past of a figure such as Abbas, something that will unlock the secrets to his alleged criminal motivations. But there’s a danger in over-equating background with destiny. Adedeji Oyenuga, a criminologist who studies cybercrime at Lagos State University, spent several years in the mid-2000s living among a group of Yahoo Boys who were making their living running scams in and around the area where Abbas grew up. When I called him up this spring, Oyenuga didn’t recall meeting Abbas but said some of the former Yahoo Boys he knew did. “I know the principal of his secondary school,” he said. “I know the area where he used to play.”

Some of the neighborhood’s (generally) young (generally) men began to drift into online scamming in the early 2000s, Oyenuga says, when cybercafes first started opening across Lagos. They congregated at a cafe in Bariga, the neighborhood adjacent to Oworo, initially trying to make friends on message boards and in chatrooms, like young people everywhere. But when they revealed themselves as Nigerian, Oyenuga says, “nobody was interested in them anymore.” A stereotype had preceded them onto the internet, born out of the “Nigerian prince” scams of the 1990s that promised a share of a supposed prince’s lost fortune if only the mark would wire some money upfront to help retrieve it. With unemployment rising, some of these young men eventually chose to embrace a brand of fraud that became known—due to an early reliance on the company’s free email accounts—simply as “Yahoo.” Social media offered a virtually limitless number of targets, often referred to as “magas,” local slang that translates roughly as “gullible marks” and predates the Trump-era term.

The result was a remarkable level of criminal invention. Scams evolved over a decade from money-order fraud to check-cashing scams to romance scams to BECs—driven by a confluence of untapped talent and an inept, perennially corrupt government. “Cybercrime is a metaphor for a more deep-seated and deep-rooted problem in Nigeria,” says Olayinka Akanle, a sociology professor at the University of Ibadan who’s studied youth and cybercrime. “When people face survival challenges, they innovate. And when they innovate, if there is no system to address their innovation in a very decisive way, it becomes the norm.”

Abbas, by his own account, felt the system had particularly abandoned him. When a prominent Nigerian political activist suggested in 2018 that the authorities investigate his source of wealth, he responded with an impassioned Snapchat video rebuttal. “My mother is from the Niger Delta part of Nigeria, where Nigeria’s oil comes from,” he said. “She has never benefited one dollar. One dollar! And she is over 60 years old.” He noted that he was the first in his father’s family, going back generations, to escape poverty, but he’d not been left unscathed by it; his sister died of typhoid, he said, because of a medical bill the family couldn’t pay. “Do you know how many families are suffering different kinds of pain within their hearts, because of negligence of the government?”

Pinning down precise details of when and where Abbas started his alleged online hustle is difficult. Oyenuga gave me the number of a man named Noah, who, he said, had known Abbas growing up. When I reached Noah after weeks of trying, he hedged on the question of how close they’d been, noting that he was much older than Abbas. But then, while we were on the phone, he flagged down another guy—off the street, from the sound of it—who introduced himself only as “Jay.” Jay remembered Abbas as a friendly kid, he said, never in trouble. But he had always cultivated an appetite for luxury. “We called him Ramoni,” he recalled. “He was a fashionista.”

This account lines up with Abbas’s own recollections of his childhood. During a live Instagram chat with a fellow influencer, he once described scouring local stores for the cheapest designer labels he could find, then reselling them around the neighborhood. “I was buying it, and I couldn’t use it myself, and I was going to sell it to people so I can make profits,” he said. To many of his neighbors, he claimed, the wealthy business center of Lagos—“the island,” as it’s known—seemed a world away. For Abbas, it fueled his dreams. “I saw how people lived,” he recalled. Where once his goal had been to own a motorcycle and a minibus, he began to see a world beyond.

Sometime around 2014, his dreams lured him out of Lagos to Kuala Lumpur, part of what Oyenuga describes as “an exodus of young Yahoo Boys from Nigeria to Malaysia, to the U.S., to the U.K., and to India.” Oyenuga says he thinks that Abbas managed his money better than many of his compatriots and that he left for a base from which it was simpler to operate online. “He went to study, he told me,” says Sikiru Adekoya, a childhood friend of Abbas’s who goes by Pac. “When he left for Malaysia, we lost contact.”

In Nigeria, meanwhile, cybercrime had increasingly become a pretext for police abuses. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the agency tasked with investigating digital fraud and money laundering, regularly nabs low-level local grifters, parading their mug shots on social media. But as online scams flourished in the 2000s, the heavily armed Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS—a law enforcement division founded in the 1990s to address a rash of robberies and kidnappings—somehow also claimed cybercrime as its purview. The unit became notorious for its brazen extortion and torture of suspects, with unfounded fraud accusations sometimes serving as the excuse for both.

“Their response has been to arrest and to extrajudicially kill people who they think look like Yahoo Boys, young professionals with laptops and cellphones,” says Matthew Page, who researches Nigerian corruption as an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank. “That has been the worst side effect of a rise in cybercrime: the vilification of a lot of people, fingered as Yahoo Boys with no real evidence whatsoever. Meanwhile, Hushpuppi is living the good life in Dubai, and some insurance salesman is getting shot in the head in a back alley in Lagos, because the police have decided he’s a Yahoo Boy.”

I asked Jay, the man on the street who said he’d known Abbas, if he knew why he’d had left the country. “Everybody wants to leave Nigeria,” he said. “Nigeria’s a hard place.”

Once on his feet in Kuala Lumpur, Abbas transformed into @hushpuppi, picking up the Instagram handle he’d claimed in 2012 but rarely used. Many of his early photos were taken in a modest apartment kitchen, but he had a natural presence on camera. The photos most often framed him from head to toe, his left leg slightly ahead of the right to show his full outfit, shoes included. His smile, usually mouth closed with eyes alight, was confident, ambitious, a little sly. Soon he was getting thousands of likes per post, and his captions began to reflect his own flavor of prosperity gospel. He included bits of wisdom on living your best life and mini-lectures about how far he’d already come—and how others could do the same.

@hushpuppi “God opens millions of flowers without forcing the buds, it tells us not to force anything for things will happen in the right time. #HappySunday #LouisVuitton #Versace #VersaceBelt #VersaceRing #FranckMuller

@hushpuppi “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing that it is stupid. #versace #versacemedusa #Versaceshoes #Versacebelt #Versacering #versacesneakers #Medusa #sneakers #sneakerhead #SneakerRoleModel”

Back then, his thoughts often contained a measure of humility and appreciation. He was seeking an audience, feeling out his voice. “There are people out there who have it way worse than I do, that’s why I dont care if the glass is half empty or half full,” he wrote in March 2014. “I’m grateful I have a glass at all. Sure I want more, sure I want better but I’m not going to let what I don’t have make me take for granted what I do have.”

Absent from his missives was any explanation for his growing wealth. But there may have been hints, if you knew where to look. In January 2015 the Versace store in Kuala Lumpur presented Hushpuppi and a friend, Samson Oyekunle, with gifts celebrating their status as the best customers of 2014. Naturally, Hushpuppi documented the event in an Instagram post: He and Oyekunle, who went by @evertipsysmiley on Instagram, open their gifts as Hushpuppi describes having just spent $20,000 in the store. Not long afterward, Oyekunle relocated to Houston, and in February 2017 federal authorities arrested him and charged him with participating in multiple BEC frauds. He pleaded guilty to opening bank accounts across Houston to facilitate the schemes with unnamed co-conspirators outside the U.S. and was sentenced to five years in prison.

By that time, Abbas had moved to Dubai. He’d been spending time there as his fortune grew, first in the company of Ismaila Mustapha, a fellow influencer who goes by Mompha. “Having an amazing time with the bro @mompha before our flight to MY beautiful Malaysia,” he posted in 2015. “My first time ever in a Louboutin store??, 6 pairs ain’t bad to add to the collection ????????????????.” Their Instagram styles tracked each other closely: luxury cars, designer clothes, and watches. In late 2016, the pair’s names were featured in Living Things, a song celebrating their brand of opulent living by the Nigerian musician 9ice.

As Abbas’s profile grew, so did his appetite for online beefs—a fail-safe way for the world’s influencers to expand their followings. First came a 2017 tiff with the pop star Davido, who Abbas claimed had failed to pay his tab at a Lagos nightclub. (The two soon made up in an online video posted on Davido’s Snapchat, further raising Hushpuppi’s profile.) Next he accused musicians Phyno and Ice Prince of wearing fake luxury watches. “We are not on d same level mate,” Phyno shot back. “U live and die for Gucci … I will live and die for my pple.” The unknown source of Hushpuppi’s wealth was a recurring theme of his would-be rivals’ responses. “You have no credibility, no known source of income and yet you come on social media to attack hard working Nigerian musicians with traceable wealth?” the singer Kcee posted. “Really, what do you do for a living, what is your talent, how did you make your money, what brand do you represent?” Nigeria’s EFCC, he concluded, “Needs to start paying more ‘Attention to detail.’ ”

Eventually, Abbas’s penchant for beefs also consumed his friendship with Mompha, who claimed Abbas had leeched off him when he arrived in Dubai. He’d given Abbas a place to stay and sponsored his Dubai visa, he claimed in one post, and “Still u wanna stab me at the back by using my personal account for fraudulent act and sending me to jail.” He added: “Try go help ur taxi driver father and ur bread seller mama and stop living fake life on social media.” Abbas lobbed back that Mompha, whom he’d treated “as an elder brother I never had,” had betrayed him. “You borrow my clothes for the gram yet you are the one quick to run to the gram to say someone else is living a fake life,” he wrote. “If this life is fake, I don’t want a real one.” He also accused Mompha of helping launder money for Nigerian politicians.

As each story churned its way through the gossip blogs, Hushpuppi’s following ticked up. He’d become an aspirational figure to millions, offering opulence without apology, consumption without regret. Back home he was nearing full-blown celebrity status. In May 2017 he posted a photo of himself in a hot tub with a glass of wine, the stunning coast of the Greek island Santorini stretched out behind him. “Letter to the Ghetto Kid,” the several-hundred-word caption began. “As a man that I am today who developed from being one of you guys, who went through the same struggles you are presently going through … I know the society do not expect you to make it.”

“I am you, you are me,” he continued. “I represent every under privilege kid of the world and especially of Nigeria and of Lagos and of Bariga and of Oworonsoki.”

Abbas did bring friends from his old neighborhood to Dubai, including Pac, who goes by @officialpac02 on Instagram. A plumber by trade who’s known Abbas since they were teens, Pac says that after he lost his construction job in Nigeria, Abbas supported him and then suggested he come to the United Arab Emirates. Abbas managed real estate there, he told Pac, and could help him find work. Soon, Pac was living in Abbas’s four-bedroom penthouse at the Palazzo Versace and showing up as an occasional wingman in his friend’s posts. On his own Instagram page, he was a full-time Hushpuppi hype man, wearing a custom “Team Hush” tracksuit and offering earnest appreciation for what Abbas had done for him. “Thank God 4 bringing @Hushpuppi 2my way,” he posted on his birthday in 2017, beneath a photo of him with Abbas on a private jet.

Among the figures who passed through both men’s feeds was a lesser influencer named Olalekan Jacob Ponle, or @mrwoodbery. With a follower count still in the tens of thousands, he was a grade below Hushpuppi, but he was on the rise. Slimmer and taller than Abbas, always in sunglasses, he deployed a similar caption style. One day he stood, head bowed, in front of a yellow Lamborghini. “To get through the toughest journeys you need take only one step at a time, but you have to keep on stepping without doubting ???,” he wrote.

Hushpuppi, for his part, appeared to be moving beyond mere flashy purchasing power and entering the stratospheric consumption of the superrich. And brands were taking note. Stores lavished perks on Hushpuppi and his friends—elaborate birthday cakes, custom shoes, engraved Rolls-Royce nameplates. Once, Hushpuppi said, he’d been denied a French visa when trying to escape Nigeria. Now he was posting about staying at the Ritz Paris for Fashion Week as an all-expenses-paid, VIP guest of Louis Vuitton.

 

*Continue reading in Bloomberg


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