Washington State conned out of a likely ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ by Nigerian scammers

Washington State conned out of a likely ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ by Nigerian scammers

As jobless figures skyrocket during the coronavirus pandemic, officials in Washington State may have lost “hundreds of millions of dollars” to fraudsters filing bogus unemployment claims – all the way from Nigeria.

Washington’s monthly unemployment report, released on Wednesday, made for grim reading. The Evergreen State’s unemployment rate has tripled since March, with nearly a third of the labor force applying for welfare – the highest in the nation.

Now, officials in Olympia have admitted that many of these claims were fraudulent, and that state coffers have been cleaned out by scammers based in Nigeria. 

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Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Employment Security Department (ESD) Commissioner Suzan LeVine didn’t admit exactly how much money the crafty Nigerians had gotten away with, only that it was “orders of magnitude above” the $1.6 million her department lost to fraud last month.

LeVine’s admission came a week after the Secret Service circulated a memo warning of a “well-organized Nigerian fraud ring exploiting the Covid-19 crisis to commit large-scale fraud against state unemployment insurance programs.” Washington was named as the “primary state targeted,” while the report also warned of “attacks in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Florida.” Potential losses, the Secret Service claimed, could amount to “hundreds of millions.”

Nearly everyone with an email address has gotten the infamous ‘Nigerian prince’ email at some point. Designed to fool only the most gullible, the ‘prince’ claims to have inherited a vast fortune, but for reasons unknown he can’t access it without paying a small fee to a Swiss bank, or something equally implausible. The unfortunate mark sends the prince this fee, and never sees their share of the fortune.

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The criminals who targeted Washington were a little more sophisticated. According to the Secret Service memo, the scammers had access to lists of social security numbers and other personal information, gleaned through identity theft. Armed with this information, they set about filing claims online, using in-state “mules” to receive the cash and forward it on to Nigeria.

Washington was likely targeted due to its relatively generous welfare system, and due to the fact that it paid out claims filed since March in lump sums in recent weeks. Furthermore, the sheer volume of claims submitted during the coronavirus crisis meant that the ESD was not examining them as thoroughly as usual.

One claim, filed in Washington and sent to a “mule” in Oklahoma, amounted to $29,000, cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs reported. To the scammer sitting behind a computer screen in Lagos or Abuja, $29,000 is a bonanza. A Nigerian working full-time can only hope to earn around $550 per year.

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Admitting you’ve been conned is a hard thing to do, even by a sophisticated criminal network. Nevertheless, LeVine attempted to spin the news positively on Thursday, boasting that her department has strengthened its security in recent days.

“We do have definitive proof that the countermeasures we have put in place are working,” she said. “We have successfully prevented hundreds of millions of additional dollars from going out to these criminals and prevented thousands of fraudulent claims from being filed.”

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