‘This is an awesome first step’: FBI makes first arrest in massive WA unemployment fraud case

NEW YORK — The 42-year-old Nigerian citizen accused of stealing more than $350,000 in fraudulent unemployment claims from Washington state likely never even visited the state, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Abidemi Rufai, whom FBI agents recognized from social media accounts and images from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York while they said he was trying to leave the country.

U.S. attorneys said Rufai stole the identities of more than 100 people in Washington state to funnel unemployment benefits into his own bank account from the Washington state’s Employment Security Department.

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Investigators said Rufai used small variations in email addresses in a Gmail account, which made it appear like he was multiple people, to slip through fraud detection at ESD. He primarily uses the address Sandytangy5@gmail.com but would scatter periods in variations like san.dyta.ngy58@gmail.com and sa.ndyt.a.ngy58@gmail.com. But investigators said Gmail addresses do not recognize periods, so anything sent to the different addresses went straight to Rufai’s inbox.

The FBI stated Rufai stole $288,825 by committing fraud and after filing hundreds of fraudulent unemployment claims within six months last year. According to investigators, they followed the money. According to a local fraud victim, the crime was likely organized by a handful of people.

“I am certain that they’re all connected,” said Tommy Parker, an IT security expert who was out of work during the pandemic. For months, someone who stole his identity was also stealing his benefits.

“They made my life miserable when not only did I have to prove I didn’t get that money, but then I actually needed my insurance money, and I couldn’t get that either,” he said.

>>RELATED: More than 90,000 unemployed workers stuck in ID verification, wait time extended for many

Parker believes Rufai and others were tipped off that security was weak or disabled at the Employment Security Department.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Parker said. “You don’t undertake an operation of this scope without assurances that it’s going to work!”

The state of Washington confirmed it paid fraudsters $642,954 and only recovered $369,789 of that amount, which means more than $273 million are still gone. Parker believes the arrest of Rufai could be a game-changer.

>>RELATED: State says it will meet deadline for some workers’ unemployment benefits, others still waiting

“This is an awesome first step,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to squeeze some information out of that guy and find the rest of the people connected to this.”