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Emeka Onyegbula: Pan Ocean Oil Staff Who Stole $340K From 17 U.S. States, Awaits Extradition

In the United States, Chukwuemeka Onyegbula, an IT employee of Pan Ocean Oil Corporation Nigeria Limited, has been charged with wire fraud and identity theft.

Onyegbula, who was arrested in Lagos on June 5, is awaiting extradition to the United States, where he will face charges.

Authorities allege that he and his accomplices fraudulently applied for pandemic-related jobless benefits in 17 states.

According to an indictment released Thursday in Seattle, Onyegbula, who goes by the name “Phillip Carter,” was linked to at least 253 fake unemployment benefit filings.

Onyegbula and Rufai defrauded the Washington State Employment Security Department.
Onyegbula and Rufai defrauded the Washington State Employment Security Department.
Washington, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Nevada, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wisconsin paid out approximately $290,000 in claims related to the case, according to the Seattle U.S. Attorney’s Office.

According to prosecutors, the federal Small Business Administration paid $54,000 to Onyegbula and his co-conspirators in COVID-19 economic catastrophe claims.

In the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, Onyegbula is the second Nigerian national accused with such fraud.

Abidemi Rufai, a suspended Ogun state government officer, is accused of filing $350,000 in bogus claims in Washington and other states, with $288,000 of that money ending up in a bank account he controlled.

According to federal authorities, he also attempted to defraud the Internal Revenue Service of approximately $1.6 million.

Rufai was apprehended on his way from New York to Nigeria on May 14th. He was ordered released on bond pending trial by a federal court in New York, but federal prosecutors in western Washington have been working to keep him in custody, claiming that he poses a serious flight risk, is skilled at creating false identities, and is unlikely to be extradited if he returns to Nigeria.

Rufai will face a hearing on Friday to see if he may be released pending trial.

Assistant US attorneys claimed in a court filing on Wednesday that a taped discussion between Rufai and his brother proved that Rufai did not know a woman who had offered to be his custodian if he was released.

According to prosecutors, the recorded chat also indicated that Rufai had substantially more money than he had led the court to believe.

One of Rufai’s attorneys, Michael C. Barrows, termed the government’s interpretation of the exchange “an total fabrication” in a rebuttal filed Thursday.

Barrows said the family member who offered to act as custodian was there at Rufai’s son’s christening five years ago. Rufai visited her frequently when he traveled to New York, and nothing in the conversation – which took place in Rufai’s second language, English – could be interpreted as implying that he didn’t know her, according to Barrows.

Furthermore, Rufai’s comments regarding money referred to his ability to obtain funds for his bond from friends and supporters, not to the fact that he had concealed assets, according to Barrows.

Fraudulent claims for pandemic-related benefits wreaked havoc on Washington state.

According to state officials, it likely paid out more than $647 million in bogus claims, while $370 million was recovered.

Modus Operandi:

According to Paul Roberts of the Seattle Times, Onyegbula and Rufai utilized the same strategy to defraud the states.

Like Rufai, Onyegbula used a feature of Gmail, Google’s free email service, to file multiple claims for benefits with the Washington state Employment Security Department and other states, according to the indictment.

Holders of a single Gmail account can create dozens of additional email addresses simply by adding one or more periods to the original address. Because the Gmail system doesn’t recognize periods, any emails sent to those so-called dot variant addresses are all routed to the inbox of the original Gmail address.

According to prosecutors, Onyegbula and unnamed co-conspirators used his original Gmail address, [email protected], to create dozens of variants such as [email protected].

Onyegbula and co-conspirators used the email addresses along with stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data to file at least 253 unemployment claims with the ESD and unemployment agencies in Arizona, California and 14 other states, prosecutors say.

At least $289,604 in benefits were paid out on those claims, according to a June 7 complaint.

Onyegbula and co-conspirators used a similar approach in filing at least 63 applications for so-called Economic Injury Disaster Loans through the federal Small Business Administration, according to the complaint. Those applications netted Onyegbula and his co-conspirators at least $53,900, prosecutors say.

The status of the stolen funds remains under investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s spokesperson said.

Investigators said they also found indications that the [email protected] account was used to seek fraudulent tax refunds. That’s potentially another parallel with Rufai, who also attempted to defraud the Internal Revenue Service of nearly $1.6 million, according to a May 28 federal filing.

But as with Rufai’s case, Onyegbula’s Gmail account also appears to have helped federal investigators track him down.

According to the complaint, the Gmail account contained information about a bank account in Onyegbula’s name, his U.S. visa application, and a work email from a Nigerian-based oil company, Pan Ocean Oil Corporation Nigeria Limited.

A LinkedIn profile lists an individual named Chukwuemeka Onyegbula as a “system engineer at Pan Ocean Oil Corporation,” and as a 2005 graduate in computer engineering from the University of Benin.

This case is being investigated by the FBI, with assistance from the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General and the Department of Justice and the cooperation of the ESD.

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