Nigerian man arrested in Washington unemployment fraud case

A Nigerian man suspected in Washington state’s $650 million unemployment fraud was arrested Friday at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport by federal agents as he allegedly attempted to leave the country.

Abidemi Rufai of Lekki, Nigeria appeared in federal court Saturday on charges that he used the identities of more than 100 Washington residents to steal more than $350,000 in unemployment benefits from the Washington state Employment Security Department (ESD) during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

"This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud," said Tessa Gorman, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, in a statement Monday.

RELATED: Massive Washington unemployment fraud a warning to other states

Rufai is scheduled for a detention hearing in New York Wednesday, according to the US Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington, and next steps will include his extradition to the state where the case is being prosecuted. 

"The perpetrators take steps to conceal their identities. A lot of times they’re overseas moving money around in different accounts," said Steve Bernd, FBI Seattle Public Affairs Specialist. "So the fact that we're able to catch this person is a great step for us. We’re not going to stop with him, we’re also going to be looking to try and find more."

According to the complaint, much of the evidence was found in Rufai's email inbox. The investigating special agent said in the documents that Google disregards periods in email addresses, and alleges the suspect took advantage of that feature and submitted multiple fraudulent claims from a single Google email account without ESD detecting it.

Google was ordered to disclose the account's recovery SMS number, according to the complaint, and that number turned out to be a Nigerian phone number that belonged to the suspect.

In January, a judge ordered a search warrant for the suspect's email account where investigators reported finding evidence of fraud.

"I want to thank our partners in law enforcement for their continued efforts to hold criminals accountable for their attacks on our unemployment insurance system," said Acting Commissioner Cami Feek of ESD. "The Employment Security Department will continue to work with law enforcement and support these efforts in any way possible."

His arrest comes almost a year after officials announced they were temporarily suspending unemployment benefits payments after discovering that criminals had used stolen Social Security numbers and other personal information to file bogus claims for federal and state unemployment benefits.

RELATED: Data breach compromised info of 1.6 million who sought unemployment in Washington

Within days, officials disclosed that "hundreds of millions of dollars" had likely been stolen in a fraud scheme that law enforcement officials and cybercrime experts said was partly based in Nigeria.

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