A prominent social media influencer from Nigeria has been sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for his role in operating a worldwide money laundering scheme.
Ramon Abbas, who went by @hushpuppi on Instagram, must also pay back $1.7 million as part of his sentence, a California judge ordered this week. Abbas, 40, was known across social media for extravagant posts showing off a wealthy lifestyle, but his real line of work was defrauding people through so-called business email compromise scams (BEC), the U.S. Department of Justice said Monday.
Abbas was "one of the most prolific money launderers in the world," Don Alway, assistant director in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Los Angeles office, said in a statement this week.
In 2020, Abbas posed as a Wells Fargo banker in New York in order to steal money from a Qatari businessperson who was looking for a loan to build a school, authorities said. Abbas scammed the businessperson out of more than $1 million with the help of three other accomplices, according to the Justice Department.
Authorities said Abbas also admitted to playing the middleman for a Canadian man who laundered $14.7 million that was stolen from a bank in Malta in January 2019. The stolen money was intended for the North Korean government, Justice Department officials said.
Millions in stolen pounds laundered
Abbas also helped launder millions of pounds stolen from a British company and a professional soccer club in the United Kingdom and got a New York-based law firm to transfer nearly $923,000 to a criminal account, federal prosecutors said.
Authorities arrested Abbas in June 2020 in the United Arab Emirates and transported him to the U.S. He has been in federal custody ever since. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in money laundering in April 2021.
The money and social media attention Abbas garnered helped him gain celebrity status in recent years, as the online celebrity posed in pictures with English soccer stars like Tammy Abraham and Nigerian pop stars Davido and Wiz Kid. Before his 2020 arrest, the "hushpuppi" Instagram account boasted more than 2.5 million followers. It has since been deleted.
"Abbas bragged on social media about his lavish lifestyle — a lifestyle funded by his involvement in transnational fraud and money laundering conspiracies targeting victims around the world," U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement.
Business email compromise scams like the ones Abbas engaged in have become a fast-growing type of cyberattack in the U.S., authorities said. In a BEC scam, a criminal pretending to be a familiar figure such as a supplier, attorney or CEO, typically emails an employee at a large company or small business with a seemingly legitimate request involving a payment. The fraudulent email typically includes instructions on how the target can wire money to the criminal.
Cybercriminals often use malware to gain access to a corporation's or financial institution's email ecosystem.
Between October 2013 and December 2021, about 116,400 American businesses and people fell victim to these types of scams, losing $14.7 billion, according to FBI data.
"Money laundering and business email compromise scams are a massive international crime problem, and we will continue to work with our law enforcement and international partners to identify and prosecute those involved, wherever they may be," Estrada said.
Ghaleb Alaumary of Ontario — the Canadian man involved with Abbas — has been charged separately. Alaumary pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in money laundering in 2020, authorities said. He has been sentenced to almost a dozen years in prison and was ordered to pay more than $30 million in restitution.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
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