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Africa / Crime Watch

Report on Hushpuppi – the Instagram influencer and international fraudster

Ramon Abbas, known as Hushpuppi to his 2.5 million Instagram followers, is considered by the FBI to be one of the world’s most high-profile fraudsters and faces up to 20 years in prison in the United States after pleading guilty to money laundering.

The BBC has uncovered the man behind cyber heists that have cost his victims millions, from his humble beginnings as a “Yahoo Boy” hustler in Nigeria to a so-called “Billionaire Gucci Master” living a life of luxury in Dubai before his arrest last year.

The 37-year-old began his career in Oworonshoki, a poor coastal area in Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos.

Local driver Seye told the BBC that he remembered Abbas as a young boy working in the Olojojo market with his mother. His father worked as a cab driver.

“He was generous,” Seye says of Abbas’s spending habits as he grew older. He used to buy beer for everyone in the neighbourhood.”

But everyone knew where his mysterious wealth came from: cybercrime; he was a “Yahoo,” Seye says.

Hushpuppi’s former address was 9 Ogunyomi Street in Lagos’ Oworonshoki neighbourhood.

“Yahoo Boys” are romance scammers who took their name from Nigeria’s first free email service.

“They devised the plan of stealing identities.” “And then they went into dating [scams] with that identity theft,” explains Dr Adedeji Oyenuga, a cybercrime expert at Lagos State University.

Romance scammers extort money from their online lovers after establishing a relationship using a false identity.

Abbas, like many other Yahoo Boys, broadened his criminal horizons. Many went to Malaysia, and Abbas followed them, eventually landing in Kuala Lumpur in 2014 and Dubai in 2017.

North Korean hackers

“Yahoo Boys” is a roma. This is when his Instagram posts – and crimes – escalated.

In February 2019, he attempted to launder 13 million euros (£11 million; $15 million) stolen from the Maltese Bank of Valletta by a gang of North Korean hackers.

According to Abigail Mamo, CEO of the Maltese Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises, the heist has thrown the holiday island into “chaos.”

As payment systems failed, shopping trolleys full of goods were abandoned at checkouts.

“We received calls from our members telling us they were sending money to their foreign suppliers using the Bank of Valletta’s platform,” Ms Mamo says.

“Their foreign suppliers were not paid… We’re talking about thousands of euros.”

The bank stated that it was able to recover 10 million euros.

“Damn,” Abbas texted a fellow scammer at the time, according to messages obtained by the FBI.
The response indicates that the next heist was in the works: “Next one is in a few weeks; will let you know when it’s ready.” Too

The response indicates that the next heist was in the works: “Next one is in a few weeks; will let you know when it’s ready.” It’s a shame they caught on, because it would have been a nice payout.”

Premiership scam scuppered

In May 2019, Abbas was tasked with setting up a bank account in Mexico.

It was to receive £100m from a Premier League Football Club, and £200m from a UK firm. Neither are named in the court documents.

The scams were to be carried out via Business Email Compromise (BEC).

Terrifyingly simple, BEC works by intercepting payments via fake emails that appear to come from an address that is almost exactly the same as the supplier’s. Only a single letter or number will be different.

In that email the scammers – posing as a supplier awaiting payment – typically say they’ve switched banks, so the payment will need to be wired to a different account; the details for which they will provide.

The accounts clerk is fooled into thinking it is a legitimate request from the supplier – and, with a single click of a mouse, vast sums of money are lost.

But the Premiership scam fell apart when the UK banks refused to pay into the Mexican account. “Brother I can’t send from UK to Mexico,” Abbas’s sidekick messaged him. “They keep finding out.”

None of the Premiership clubs would confirm whether or not they were the intended victim.

‘Professionals shamed’

Jon Shilland, fraud lead with the UK’s National Crime Agency, says it can be difficult tracking down criminal networks based in multiple jurisdictions.

A fact knew all too well by Dubai-based lawyer Barney Almazar.

He represents around 25 people – including eight UK citizens – in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), all of whom believe they are victims of one of Hushpuppi’s BEC scams.

“We cannot say with 100% certainty that Hushpuppi is behind it,” Mr Almazar says.

“But if you look at the bank accounts that police have traced, they all belong to the records obtained by the police in their raids [on Hushpuppi’s home in Dubai].”

One UK victim, who wanted to remain anonymous, says he lost £500,000, has been forced to leave the UAE – and is himself facing criminal proceedings in Dubai because of the debt he has incurred as a result of the fraud.

“His clients understand that he was victimised,” Mr Almazar explains.

“But they also have to cover their losses, so right now he doesn’t know how he can get back to the UAE. He has spent his life in the UAE. His family are still in the UAE. He fears that he might get apprehended at immigration immediately.”

Mr Almazar says shame prevents many more of Hushpuppi’s victims coming forward.

“The scam was very sophisticated. Professionals were victimised. Some are hesitant to admit what has happened.”

Qatari school fraud

Abbas’s final big scam before his arrest in Dubai in June 2020 was straight-up identity theft, borrowed from the Yahoo Boy romance scams of his youth.

He assumed the identity of a New York banker to entrap his victim, a Qatari businessperson seeking a $15m loan to build a new school in the Gulf state.

Between December 2019 and February 2020, Abbas and a gang of alleged middlemen in Kenya, Nigeria and the US groomed and conned the victim out of more than a million dollars.

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Some of it was laundered via the purchase of a watch worth a staggering $230,000.

But soon, the cracks between the gang started to show.

One member threatened to blow the whole scam wide open as he was unhappy about the money he was getting.

Abbas was determined to shut him up.

He texted his contact – Nigerian police officer Abba Kyari – saying: “I want him to go through the serious beating of his life.

“I want to spend money to send this boy to jail, let him go for a very long time.”

It is alleged that Mr Kyari then falsely arrested and detained the middleman for a month in a squalid Nigerian cell.

And now Mr Kyari too is wanted in the US on charges of fraud, money laundering and identity theft. He has previously denied having any criminal involvement with Abbas – and has not responded to the BBC’s requests for comment.

Still attracting followers

BEC fraud is a huge issue across the world. According to the FBI, in 2020 BEC fraud resulted in losses of $1.8bn.

Court documents allege Abbas’s crimes cost victims almost $24m in total. But some believe the actual total could be much higher.

On Instagram, he dropped the “Billionaire Gucci Master” moniker for “Real Estate Developer” about eight months before his arrest and subsequent transfer to the US to stand trial.

Despite him pleading guilty in April to money laundering, Hushpuppi’s social media is still live and attracting followers.

We contacted Instagram to ask why his account was still open. The social media platform told the BBC that it had carried out an investigation into his account – but had decided not to close it.

Just days after we put the same question to Snapchat, which deleted Hushpuppi’s account.

Dr Oyenuga says Hushpuppi’s influence endures as he is still regarded as a role model: “We’re in a country where a lot of young people are suffering. They see another young person who was once like them become that great.

“I have seen parents who have taken their children to learn how to become Yahoo Boys.”

Seye says everyone knows Hushpuppi has committed a crime, but it is understandable: “No-one prays to be poor. So when you see someone who is rich, you will pray to God to give you his kind of wealth.”


Source: BBC

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