Two men jailed over €183,000 PUP scam masterminded by international crime gang
l 9 hrs ago
TWO men have been jailed for a money-laundering conspiracy which was masterminded by a notorious Nigerian crime gang.
The operation resulted in €183,491 being fraudulently obtained under the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).
Judge Helen Boyle told Oluwagbewikeke Lewis (36) and Bashiru Aderibige (45) that they had participated in a fraud to target a scheme aimed at helping people who were suffering genuine hardship during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lewis was jailed for four years with the final year suspended, while Aderibige was jailed for three and-a-half years with the final year suspended.
Judge Boyle said a message had to be sent out to those who get involved with international cyber gangs.
“Cyber crime is relatively new and one that has to be shown that people should not be tempted to get involved in. It’s a very serious crime,” she said.
The judge also noted that the scam was based on a data breach which targeted people through fake jury service notices – and that the fraud had effectively attacked the social contract in Ireland.
Judge Boyle said she accepted that both men were involved at a lower level in the fraud and displayed none of the trappings of wealth.
“Mr Lewis was slightly higher up the chain. I accept that Mr Aderibige was lower down the chain,” she said.
“But you [both] deliberately set out to defraud a scheme that was designed to help people in genuine [financial] difficulty during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Cork Circuit Criminal Court heard that gardaí intervened in the elaborate scam last year and managed to secure orders freezing €32,158 in various bank accounts set up as part of the conspiracy.
While €30,000 was later traced to a German bank account, more than €150,000 of the funds obtained from fraudulent PUP payments is now unaccounted for.
When frozen funds, compensation and cash seizures are taken into account, the State faces a loss of over €120,000 from the PUP scam.
Judge Boyle was told the bank accounts central to the scam were set up using information obtained from a data breach. A cloned Internet site had been used to obtain personal details from people after advising them they were required for jury service.
This fake site then harvested their personal details, including PPS numbers.
Oluwagbewikeke Lewis (36) of Brookdale, Midleton, Co Cork and Bashiru Aderibige (44) of Banogue, Midleton, Co Cork pleaded guilty before Judge Boyle to offences contrary to Section 71 of the Criminal Justice Act, 2006.
Lewis also pleaded guilty to six counts of the possession of false instruments, namely altered Permanent TSB statements, as well as one count of possession of stolen property, a British passport.
Judge Boyle was told that Lewis played the more involved role in the scam.
The fraud involved some members hacking information which contained email data of Health Service Executive (HSE) and Tusla employees.
This was done in the belief that these staff members would work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and would not be making PUP claims.
The emails were used to send out fake jury notices. These notices told people they were required for jury trials and asking them to confirm personal details including their name, address, date of birth, mother’s maiden name and PPS number.
Over a nine-month period last year, over €180,000 in PUP claims were lodged and then paid by the State.
A total of 61 people made sworn statements to gardaí that the bank accounts were opened without their knowledge or permission.
The court was told that 74 people clicked on the link which brought them to the cloned Internet site.
From the details obtained, 57 bank accounts were set up with An Post with the aim of fraudulently obtaining PUP payments.
Lewis, who has no previous convictions, is from Nigeria but has been living in Ireland for five years and is in a relationship with an Irish citizen.
He has a four-year-old son in Ireland as well as a nine-year-old son in Nigeria.
Aderibige, who is also originally from Nigeria, has been living in Ireland for 18 years and is an Irish citizen after being granted asylum status in 2005.
He has five children and has been working as a taxi driver.
Aderibige has no previous convictions in Ireland and is deeply involved in his Cork church.
Judge Boyle was told that the major Garda investigation into the conspiracy involved searching properties, an analysis of extensive CCTV security footage and checking overseas bank transfers.
Detective Garda Kieran Crowley said gardaí arrested Lewis on November 6, 2020, after becoming suspicious as to the true identity of an individual in a Mercedes E-Class car in east Cork.
Garda concerns mounted when they determined the man in the car appeared to be very nervous.
A search revealed two passports and two sets of bank statements.
Both passports were in different names yet both had the photographs of Lewis.
Both documents were later found to be false.
Det Gda Crowley said no explanation was offered to gardaí at the time by Lewis regarding the false documents.
Det Gda Eimhear Keeshan, of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, said officers had conducted an extensive examination of CCTV footage and telephone records in respect of concerns over PUP claims.
Gardaí worked with officials at the Department of Social Protection (DSP) as part of the investigation.
She said it was her belief that the various bank accounts were set up to launder money obtained through unjustified PUP claims.
Both defendants had been friends for a number of years and were seen together on CCTV footage arriving at the Crescent Shopping Centre in Limerick, where some of the funds were later withdrawn from one account.
In a subsequent search of Lewis’s home, a fraudulent Nigerian passport was found as well as a baseball cap which was visible on one of the individuals in the Limerick CCTV footage.
Phones seized showed extensive contacts between the two defendants for some time.
Contacts were also found with other unnamed individuals nicknamed “The Chairman” and “Ebony 3” involving audio messages, texts and WhatsApp contacts.
The court was told that “The Chairman” is believed to have been the leader of the conspiracy.
It is suspected the gang involved is the notorious Nigerian ‘Black Axe’ criminal organisation which specialises in online fraud.
One audio message found by gardaí involved a conversation about how up to €1 million in PUP monies could be claimed in Ireland.
“They were communicating with themselves and others to commit money-laundering offences involving PUP [payments],” she said.
Gardaí intervened and managed to freeze bank accounts containing a total of €32,158.
“The rest is not available to the State,” Det Gda Keeshan said.
Judge Boyle was told that both defendants appeared before the court on signed pleas of guilty which had been indicated at an early stage in the district court.
Aderibige brought €12,000 to court in compensation, with a further €3,200 which had been seized from his property being offered in forfeiture.
Judge Boyle was told Aderibige had raised the total sum through savings and borrowings from friends and family.
His defence counsel, Sinead Behan BL, said he had played a lesser role in the matter than his co-accused and had suffered considerably from his involvement.
Lewis offered a total of €5,000 in compensation.
His defence counsel, Tom Power BL, said his client had great remorse over his involvement in the matter.
The sentences were backdated to when both men were taken into custody.