Instagram Influencer Hushpuppi’s Rise Was Allegedly Fueled By Cyber Scams - The Fall Of The Billionaire Gucci Master
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Instagram Influencer Hushpuppi’s Rise Was Allegedly Fueled By Cyber Scams - The Fall Of The Billionaire Gucci Master
■ June 30, 2021
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.
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 stu*id. #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.
The good life wasn’t going to maintain itself, though. The U.S. government alleges that in January 2019, Abbas received a message from Alaumary, the Canadian online money mover. (In Hassold’s parlance, both men would be loaders.) Alaumary, who went by G, Backwood, and Big Boss online, was a mustachioed 35-year-old who grew up in Ontario. He’d been helping to cash out BEC scams for years, including swindling a Canadian university out of $10 million in 2017. In Alaumary’s phone, Abbas was listed as Hush, and the pair communicated on Snapchat, where he operated as hushpuppi5. Alaumary told Abbas he needed a pair of bank accounts in Europe, each able to receive €5 million ($6.1 million) without attracting attention. The money would arrive on Feb. 12. Abbas replied with details for a Romanian bank account he said could handle “large amounts.”
The payouts, it turned out, would be coming from the Bank of Valletta Plc in Malta, a commercial and investment bank with offices around Europe. It had been compromised months before, in an unconventional and ambitious BEC-style scam. According to reporting in the Times of Malta, the hackers had first broken into the French stock exchange regulator, Autorité des Marchés Financiers. Then, posing as French regulators, they’d sent phishing emails to the Bank of Valletta. When an employee took the bait and clicked, the attackers were granted access to the bank’s secure payment systems, where they prepared to send out a series of undetected payouts.
In a separate indictment, the U.S. government claims the hackers were agents of the North Korean government, which the U.S. says has been on a $1.3 billion cybercrime spree since 2014, including more than $1 billion in digital bank heists and the creation of the notorious ransomware WannaCry, which was used to hack Sony Pictures Entertainment. It’s unclear whether Alaumary even knew the nature of his collaborators, but no matter: His role was to move the proceeds around the world as quickly as possible. “My associates want u to clear as soon it hits,” he wrote to Abbas, saying the money could be recalled if the victim noticed the theft. “If they don’t notice we keep pumping.”
On Hushpuppi’s Instagram, meanwhile, it was business as usual. Jan. 24 found him lounging on a plush orange couch at Dubai’s Louis Vuitton. “Mature enough to wish the best for people I no longer talk to and real enough to mean it ,” he wrote.
On Feb. 1 he heard from Alaumary again. “12th February they doing it,” he messaged, now saying he needed four bank accounts that could each accommodate millions of euros. Six days later, Alaumary was up to six accounts. “I have 6 slots in total,” he wrote Abbas. “All 5m Euro. Big hit in 12th feb. They will all credit same time.”
On Feb. 9, Abbas posted from his suite in Dubai: “The goal is to be valuable. Once you’re valuable instead of chasing money, you will attract it #Fendi #Hermes #Hublot #Versace #Dubai.”
The next day, Alaumary gave him one more chance to deliver another bank account. “Brother tonight is my dead line to submit anything more,” he messaged. “Do u want add one more or just stick to that one u gave me?” Abbas sent back details for a second account, this one in Bulgaria.
When Feb. 12 arrived, Alaumary wrote to Abbas to say that only one of the wires had gone through: €500,000 to the Romanian bank account, masked as a payment from Tipico, an online sports-betting company based in Malta. “Brother, we still have access and they didn’t realize,” he said, triumphantly. “We gonna shoot again tomoro am.”
But by the next morning, the alleged scheme had unraveled. “Today they noticed and pressed a recall on it, it might show and block or never show,” Alaumary lamented. “Look it hit the news,” he said, sending a screenshot. The Bank of Valletta had discovered that the hackers had moved €13 million out the door. They quickly shut down their entire electronic system and began desperately trying to claw back the money. (The bank would later say it had recovered most of it.)
“Next one is in few weeks will let U know when it’s ready,” Alaumary wrote. “To bad they caught on or it would been a nice payout.”
Easy come, easy go, and Abbas wasn’t about to let it kill his social media vibe. The next day, Feb. 14, he posted a photo of himself in a patterned Fendi jumpsuit, leaning against a spotless black car, palm trees in the background. “Bought myself a new Bentley Bentayga for Valentines,” he wrote. The car retails for $160,000. “The best way to celebrate the season of love.”
If the criminal complaint against him is any guide, Abbas wasn’t as cautious in his communications as large-scale money laundering might warrant. He communicated with Alaumary using his main Dubai cell number, linking it to an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, attached to his Instagram and Snapchat accounts. He maintained at least two other phones, but they were easily traceable back to him. In his alleged plotting with Alaumary, he seemed to lack even the basics of operational security.
Still, according to the authorities, the jobs kept coming. In April 2019, Alaumary returned with the prospect of a massive haul: $300 million in total, this time from the U.K. “My guy r changing acc on file for 100m contracts and there payment are once or twice a week 1-5m,” he wrote. Alaumary’s associates, in other words, had penetrated an organization and would be swapping in bank account details for weekly installments on a £100 million ($142 million) contract. The money, he told Abbas, would be coming from an English Premier League team.
There was precedent in the global soccer world for exactly this kind of BEC scheme, applied to the payment of lucrative player transfers. In 2018, four years after the Italian club Lazio bought defender Stefan de Vrij from the Dutch club Feyenoord, BEC fraudsters sent the Italians an official-looking email with Feyenoord’s logo, directing the €2 million final installment of his transfer fee to their own Dutch bank account.
The authorities have yet to allege whether Alaumary’s heist was meant to target a similar transaction, such as the reported £100 million fee paid to Chelsea for Eden Hazard’s transfer to Real Madrid in 2019, or perhaps one of the payments Tottenham Hotspur made that year for its new £850 million stadium. But after Abbas allegedly provided Alaumary an account in Mexico to start receiving payments—from the English club and a £200 million job in Scotland—the Canadian discovered that the U.K. banks were refusing to pay into it. It was too bad, Alaumary said; his U.K. bank accounts were cleaning up.
By Hushpuppi’s birthday that fall, according to the indictment, the pair had found smaller-scale success with the law firm heist. Then, just as the money came in, Alaumary disappeared into the hands of the FBI.
The next day, Abbas’s old friend Mompha was arrested at a Nigerian airport by agents from the EFCC and charged with fraud and money laundering. (Mompha didn’t respond to Instagram messages seeking comment, and his attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment.) In public, Abbas seemed uncharacteristically disinclined to gloat over his rival’s downfall. On Oct. 25, he captioned a photo taken in the Dubai Rolls-Royce dealership with a warning: “In life, we all at a point will go through trial times, don’t be quick to mock anyone or use anyone’s trial time as tool to chase clout, yours will come and you might not survive it. We all look up to God to guide and get us through these times. I wish and pray for everyone in every part of the world going through a dark time to come out of it and become better people and God be with their families. #GodHealsAllWounds #WishEveryoneGoodAtAllTimes #NoOneIsHoly #Hermes #Balenciaga #Hublot #RollsRoyce #Dubai.”
A few days later, the gossip blogs noted that he’d changed his Instagram bio from “Billionaire Gucci Master” to “Real Estate Developer.”
Abbas’s friend Pac says that while he was enjoying the fruits of Hushpuppi’s lifestyle in Dubai, tagging along to clubs and hopping planes, behind the scenes he had little luck finding work. “All the jobs they are offering me, the money was so low,” Pac says. “Maybe the same that I could make in Nigeria.” By early 2020 he was ready to return home and start his own business, but his departure was delayed by a bout of appendicitis. Abbas paid the medical bills for his emergency appendectomy. By the time he’d recovered, in March, Covid protocols had arrived and Nigeria was suspending flights from the UAE.
Never one to tone down his influencing, Hushpuppi continued to push his brand of consumptive positivity through the pandemic. In April 2020 he posted a video of himself taking a bubble bath in his lanai hot tub, with the caption “My quarantine and your quarantine are not mates.” He followed that up by reposting an old photo of himself carrying Gucci bags onto a private jet. “Fellow inmates, Where’s the first place you flying after this is over and with who?” he asked.
Perhaps sensing there was something perverse in this approach, he tried going political. “While you’re sanitizing and wiping everything down, be sure [to] wipe racism, hatred and jealousy out of your heart,” he wrote beneath a May photo of himself leaning on a white Rolls, smiling and gazing out of frame. “That too is a virus #LouisVuitton #RichardMille #RollsRoyce #Dubai #BlackLivesMatter.”
By then, however, Abbas and his compatriot Ponle, aka @mrwoodbery, were fully in the grip of a different invisible enemy. The FBI’s High-Tech Organized Crime Squad had been analyzing Alaumary’s devices since his arrest, uncovering the easily decipherable links to Hushpuppi’s phones and accounts. They’d also pegged Ponle as the orchestrator behind millions of dollars in bank accounts and Bitcoin wallets used in BEC scams. For months, the FBI had been coordinating with the UAE authorities to surveil both men and their suspected associates.
Sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. on Monday, June 8, Pac was up watching the news in Abbas’s apartment while Abbas slept upstairs. Suddenly the front door burst open, and the apartment was flooded with black-clad men brandishing weapons. Pac’s first thought was armed robbers, but it was a Dubai police SWAT team, fully kitted up and looking for Hushpuppi. They ordered Pac onto the floor along with another Nigerian friend, who’d come to Dubai on vacation and moved in with Abbas when flights home were canceled. The police took their phones and demanded to know where Abbas was, where his laptops were, and where his money was.
The agents found him upstairs, wearing a white designer T-shirt and his signature chin strap beard, looking dazed. Later, Dubai police would announce that he’d been captured in one of six simultaneous raids that led to the arrests of 12 suspects, including Ponle, Pac, and a Nigerian photographer named Kelvin Ogidika who often hung out with them. They claimed to have confiscated 47 phones, 21 laptops, $7 million worth of cars, and $40 million.
According to Pac, the suspects were taken to police headquarters and jailed separately. After four days a Dubai prosecutor questioned them first, followed by FBI agents, who asked about Abbas and the source of his money. “They said didn’t I know my friend was a fraudster?” Pac says. “I didn’t know him as a fraudster. I know him as a businessman. They said, ‘What did he invest on?’ I told them he invested in real estate management.” They told him if he provided them with evidence of Abbas’s crimes he’d be released. Otherwise he could spend the rest of his life in a Dubai prison. “When the FBI came, I told the FBI the same thing,” he says. Abbas had only ever told him that he was a real estate investor and that he changed money for African bigwigs who came to Dubai to shop. He’d never even seen his friend use a laptop in the apartment.
Abbas and Ponle, seemingly the only captives of interest to the FBI, were quickly put on a plane to the U.S. The other 10 arrested men—whose names dribbled out in the Nigerian press and which I was able to confirm in a presentation given by the Dubai police chief—disappeared into the opaque UAE justice system without charges or lawyers. “They didn’t even take us to court,” Pac says.
In a way, Abbas’s case only serves to highlight how rarely BEC crimes are investigated and prosecuted
The Dubai police were so pleased with the raid they quickly released a video of the affair styled as an action film trailer, titled Operation Fox Hunt 2, with versions narrated in Arabic and English. (Operation Fox Hunt 1 had been an unrelated roundup of fraud suspects the previous February.) “Dubai police have once again solved yet another case involving an international online scammer,” a solemn voice intoned over quick-cut footage of the police bursting into the Palazzo apartment. Interspersed with the raid were images from Hushpuppi’s Instagram feed and stock video of people typing on computer screens, including one showing the word “HACKING,” followed by “HACKED” above a skull and crossbones. The video bordered on parody, but it had the intended effect, racing across the internet. All sides, it seemed, were optimizing for social media virality.
Abbas and Ponle were flown to Chicago, where Ponle remains, facing trial. Abbas, after a preliminary hearing, was transferred to Los Angeles to face multiple charges of money laundering and wire fraud. (The Dubai police also claimed that Abbas or his co-conspirators committed fraud involving Covid ventilators and personal protective equipment but haven’t presented any evidence in public.) In the initial hearings, Abbas’s lawyer asserted that he had earned his living legitimately, through his influencing. In January, Abbas and the attorney parted ways, citing “irreconcilable disagreements regarding the theory of defense,” and Abbas replaced him with an L.A.-based attorney who declined to comment on the case.
Abbas himself didn’t respond to a letter sent to him in jail. A spokesperson for the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California declined to comment, citing the pending case, and the FBI didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. In one ominous sign for Abbas, last fall Alaumary elected to plead guilty to money laundering charges, saying he conspired with Abbas in the law firm BEC scam, the Malta bank heist, and the Premier League scam. He also pleaded guilty to separate BEC charges in the state of Georgia. Alaumary’s attorney declined to comment.
In a way, Abbas’s case only serves to highlight how rarely BEC crimes are investigated and prosecuted. “There are two issues from a law enforcement perspective,” says Hassold, the former FBI analyst. “One is just the volume of it. There aren’t nearly enough FBI agents, Secret Service agents, to come close to being able to investigate all of this.” The other issue, he says, is that major actors such as Abbas are typically overseas, requiring complex international operations to extract them. “I think probably what rose Hushpuppi up the list was the amount of money he was clearly making,” Hassold says. “And not only the amount of money he was making, but he was also flaunting it out there on places like Instagram.” (No matter how many millions Abbas’s alleged cut amounted to, he’s arguably still a patsy for the likes of the alleged North Korean hackers, who U.S. authorities say took home the bulk of the loot and remain safe in their home country.)
To Hassold’s point, the agents who filed the criminal complaint against Abbas appeared to delight in noting his online extravagances, pausing to describe in detail the photos and captions, hashtags included, they’d used to verify his identity. Perhaps most cutting, they’d used Abbas’s own birthday posts, matching them to his Nigerian passport and one he’d recently obtained from St. Kitts and Nevis. An agent wrote that he’d seen a post on Oct. 11, 2017, “of a birthday cake with the inscription ‘Happy Birthday Ramon’ and the caption ‘Thanks so much @gucci for this special. God bless you guys at the Dubai Mall Gucci Store!!!’ ”
The companies that benefited from Hushpuppi’s largesse over the years, and often repaid him with merchandise and trips, haven’t exactly rushed to his defense since his indictment was unsealed. No public-relations representative from Gucci, Fendi, or Louis Vuitton responded to requests for comment for this story. The same brands had welcomed him at high-gloss events and exclusive fashion shows. “He had a lot of followers, and one of the PR team invited him,” was all that a representative of Rich List Group, an events organization in Dubai that had hosted Abbas at a Formula One race, would say. Pac told me that at least some of what Abbas showed off on social media was loaned to him solely for his Instagram.
How much of his Gucci lifestyle was on loan from various brands may end up a tangential subject in the trial. “It does raise a really important set of questions about the ethics of marketing and how that intersects with the rise of influencers,” says Mehita Iqani, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa who’s studied digital marketing in the global south. “What responsibility do they have to do due diligence when they are choosing or recruiting an influencer?”
After the pageantry of the Operation Fox Hunt 2 video, the Dubai police also refused to comment on the case and said nothing about the fate of the 10 other suspects swept up in the raid. Pac says they were shuffled from prison to prison for five months, deprived of the chance to bathe for weeks on end, and subjected to other abuses he wouldn’t discuss. In November they were abruptly transferred to immigration custody and told they needed to find the funds for their own plane tickets home—without the clothes, phones, or cash confiscated from them. “They said I’m at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Pac says. (Ogidika, the photographer, reappeared on social media after his release. When I wrote to his email address, an anonymous representative replied to say he’d be releasing his own documentary on the incident.)
Pac told me he’s struggling to regain his footing back in Nigeria. “I hardly eat now, hardly go out,” he says. “At times I don’t have money to fill my car.” With no official recognition of his innocence, he’s found his bank accounts blocked. But through it all, he remains loyal to his friend. “Ramon is like my brother—anything that happens to him happens to me,” he says. “When I lost my job, at times he sent money to me. At times when I had any problem, I called him, and he solved these problems for me.”
Within Nigeria, mass public protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad broke out in cities across the country in October, after a video surfaced showing what the video’s original poster described as an extrajudicial killing. The protests quickly expanded to encompass wider issues of corruption and inequality, but the University of Ibadan’s Akanle says the uprising was partly driven by a whole generation who’ve found themselves treated like fraudsters. “It was so bad that if you use an iPhone, they think that you are a Yahoo guy,” Akanle says. “There is this profiling that has made it very difficult for the youth to breathe.” After 10 days of mass protests in the streets, the government pledged to disband the SARS unit. Days later, the police opened fire on protesters, killing 12.
I wondered how Hushpuppi would have weighed in on the protests. For anyone arriving on his feed these days, with the knowledge of his case, his opulence takes on a different cast. With his last post more than a year old, the top comments are all from dozens, sometimes hundreds, of gawkers who have come to mock his hubris. “The cops got a nice sneaker collection now ,” reads a typical gloat. “No more gucci in jail!” sneers another. Nigeria is home to a vibrant tech scene, particularly in financial technology, and stories such as Abbas’s are a source of exasperation, strengthening the current of negative perceptions that legitimate tech workers already swim against.
But Hushpuppi was also a celebrity, after all. Dig down further, and you can find the fans, the inspired, the people who genuinely seemed to get something from the gospel Hushpuppi preached and the hustle he purported to represent. He retains plenty of vocal supporters in Nigeria—those who think he’s innocent and those who won’t judge him if he’s guilty. His trial is scheduled for the end of July, and many fans hold out hope that he’ll somehow escape and return to his old life. New influencers have stepped up to claim the mantle of the Gucci Master—including Abbas’s frenemy Mompha, who’s returned to Dubai since his release by the Nigerian EFCC—but none quite matches Abbas’s verve and drip. The gossip blogs continue to track every minor development in Hushpuppi’s case.
For now we’re left with the wisdom of his final post, on June 7, 2020, two days before his arrest. “May success and prosperity not be a ‘once upon a time’ story in your life … ” he wrote, alongside a photo that uncharacteristically—prophetically, even—featured a sparkling white luxury SUV, with Hushpuppi himself out of the frame. “Thank you lord for the many blessings in my life continue to shame those waiting for me to be shamed #RollsRoyce #RoyceRoyceCullinan #RR #AllMine.” — With Tope Alake in Lagos and Zainab Fattah in Dubai.
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Instagram Influencer Hushpuppi’s Rise Was Allegedly Fueled By Cyber Scams - The Fall Of The Billionaire Gucci Master
■ 29 July 2021
Nigerian influencer Ramon Abbas - also known as Hushpuppi - has pleaded guilty to money laundering in a US court.
Hushpuppi, 37, is known for posting photos of his lavish lifestyle on Instagram, where he has 2.5m followers.
Court documents filed in California said Hushpuppi's crimes cost victims almost $24m (£17m) in total.
In one scheme, Hushpuppi attempted to steal more than $1.1m from someone who wanted to fund a new children's school in Qatar, the documents said.
Court records unsealed this week show he pleaded guilty to this charge on 20 April.
The documents state that between 18 January 2019 and 9 June 2020, Hushpuppi and others targeted multiple victims and laundered the illicit funds in banks all over the world.
They add that he could face up to 20 years in prison, and will need to "pay full restitution to the victim(s)".
Hushpuppi was arrested in Dubai, where he lived, in June 2020.
In a statement, acting United States Attorney Tracy Wilkinson said Hushpuppi and others faked the financing of the school "by playing the roles of bank officials and creating a bogus website".
They also "bribed a foreign official to keep the elaborate pretence going after the victim was tipped off".
Hushpuppi, who she said "played a significant role" in the scam, "funded his luxurious lifestyle by laundering illicit proceeds generated by con artists".
Kristi Johnson, acting director of the FBI's Los Angeles office, said Hushpuppi was one of the "most high-profile money launderers in the world".
His "celebrity status and ability to make connections seeped into legitimate organisations and led to several spin-off schemes in the US and abroad", she said.
His guilty plea was "a crucial blow to this international network".
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■ 8 November 2022
Hushpuppi: Notorious Nigerian fraudster jailed for 11 years in US
Hushpuppi's Instagram page remained available, even after he pleaded guilty to money laundering
A notorious Instagram influencer from Nigeria has been jailed for more than 11 years in the US for his role in an international fraud syndicate.
Hushpuppi, real name Ramon Abbas, flaunted his wealthy lifestyle on his page which had 2.8 million followers until it was disabled.
The judge in Los Angeles also ordered him to pay $1,732,841 (£1,516,182) in restitution to two fraud victims.
Abbas will serve his sentence of 135 months in a federal prison.
Last year he pleaded guilty to money laundering.
Abbas admitted to attempting to steal more than $1.1m from someone who wanted to fund a new children's school in Qatar, court documents in California say.
The fraudster tricked his victim into providing funds for the school "by playing the roles of bank officials and creating a bogus website", according to a statement from the then-acting US Attorney Tracy Wilkinson on the US justice department's website. Other suspects were allegedly also involved, the US justice department said, with Abbas playing a key role.
Abbas also admitted to "several other cyber and business email compromise schemes that cumulatively caused more than $24 million in losses", the US justice department said.
"Ramon Abbas... targeted both American and international victims, becoming one of the most prolific money launderers in the world," said Don Alway, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office, in a court document on Monday.
"Abbas leveraged his social media platforms... to gain notoriety and to brag about the immense wealth he acquired by conducting business email compromise scams, online bank heists and other cyber-enabled fraud that financially ruined scores of victims and provided assistance to the North Korean regime.
"This significant sentence is the result of years' worth of collaboration among law enforcement in multiple countries and should send a clear warning to international fraudsters that the FBI will seek justice for victims, regardless of whether criminals operate within or outside United States borders."
Abbas apologised for his crimes to Judge Otis D Wright in a handwritten note, saying he would use his personal funds to pay back his victims. He also said he had only made $300,000 from the crime he was being tried for.
Abbas' luxurious lifestyle came to an abrupt end in 2020, when he was arrested while living in Dubai.
His Instagram account, which featured pricey cars and designer clothing, was worlds away from his humble beginnings.
Those who knew Abbas as a child had told the BBC that his father was a taxi driver and his mother a market trader, but as he grew older he developed a weakness for splashing the cash. "He was generous. He used to buy beer for everyone around," a local driver called Seye said.
According to Seye, he allegedly started his fraudulent lifestyle as a "Yahoo boy", which in Nigeria, refers to men who commit romance fraud by stealing other people's identities online and swindling their none-the-wiser lovers out of money.
In 2019, one of Abbas' fraud schemes, which at this point had become worldwide affairs, had plunged the European island of Malta into chaos as payment systems shut down after Abbas tried to launder €13m ($13m) stolen by a gang of North Korean hackers from the Maltese Bank of Valletta in 2019.