Ramon Abbas – known to his 2.5 million Instagram followers as Hushpuppi – is considered by the FBI to be one of the world’s most high-profile fraudsters and faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years in the US after pleading guilty to money laundering.
The BBC has used newly released court documents to track down the man behind cyber heists that have cost his victims millions of dollars, from his humble beginnings as a “Yahoo Boy” hustler in Nigeria to a so-called “Billionaire Gucci Master” living a life of luxury in Dubai before his arrest last year.
The 37-year-old started his career in Oworonshoki, a poor coastal area north of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.
Seye, a local driver, told the BBC that he remembered Abbas as a young boy working in the Olojojo market with his mother. His father worked as a cab driver.
Abbas, according to Seye, liked to spend his money as he grew older: “He was very kind. He used to buy beer for everyone in the neighbourhood.”
But everyone knew where his mysterious wealth came from: cybercrime; he was a “Yahoo,” Seye says.
“Yahoo Boys” are romance scammers who took their name from Nigeria’s first free email service.
“They devised the plan of stealing identities. They then went into dating [scams] as a result of their identity theft “Dr. Adedeji Oyenuga, a cybercrime expert at Lagos State University, explains.
Once a relationship has been established through the use of a false identity, romance scammers extort money from their online lovers.
Abbas, like many other Yahoo Boys, broadened his criminal horizons. Many went to Malaysia, and Abbas followed them, eventually landing in Kuala Lumpur in 2014 and Dubai in 2017.
North Korean hackers
This is when his Instagram posts – and crimes – went to another level.
According to Abigail Mamo, CEO of the Maltese Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises, the heist has thrown the holiday island into “chaos.”
As payment systems went down, shopping trolleys full of goods were abandoned at checkouts.
“We received calls from our members telling us they were sending money to their foreign suppliers using the Bank of Valletta’s platform,” Ms Mamo says.
“Their foreign suppliers did not get paid… Thousands of euros are at stake.”
The bank stated that it was able to recover 10 million euros.
“Damn,” Abbas texted a fellow scammer at the time, according to messages obtained by the FBI.
The response reveals that the next heist was in the works: “The next one is coming up in a few weeks; I’ll let you know when it’s ready. It’s a shame they figured it out, because it would have been a nice payout.”
Premiership scam scuppered
Abbas was tasked with opening a bank account in Mexico in May 2019.
It was to receive £100 million from a Premier League football club and £200 million from a UK company. Neither is mentioned in the court documents.
The scams were supposed to be carried out through Business Email Compromise (BEC).
BEC works in a terrifyingly simple way: it intercepts payments via fake emails that appear to come from an address that is nearly identical to the supplier’s. The only difference will be a single letter or number.
In that email, the scammers, posing as a supplier awaiting payment, typically state that they have changed banks and that the payment must be wired to a different account, the details of which they will provide.
The accounts clerk is duped into thinking it is a legitimate request from the supplier, and vast sums of money are lost with a single click of the mouse.
The Premiership scam, however, fell apart when UK banks refused to deposit funds into the Mexican account. “Brother, I can’t send from the UK to Mexico,” Abbas’ sidekick texted. “They keep figuring it out.”
None of the Premier League clubs would confirm if they were the intended victim.
According to Jon Shilland, fraud lead at the UK’s National Crime Agency, tracking down criminal networks based in multiple jurisdictions can be difficult.
Barney Almazar, a Dubai-based lawyer, is all too aware of this fact.
He represents approximately 25 people in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), including eight UK citizens, who all believe they are victims of one of Hushpuppi’s BEC scams.
“We can’t say for certain that Hushpuppi is behind it,” Mr Almazar says.
“However, if you look at the bank accounts that the police have traced, they all belong to records obtained by the police in their raids [on Hushpuppi’s home in Dubai].”
One UK victim, who wished to remain anonymous, claims he lost £500,000, was forced to flee the UAE, and is now facing criminal charges in Dubai for the debt he incurred as a result of the fraud.
“His clients recognise that he was victimised,” Mr Almazar says.
“But they also have to cover their losses, so he’s not sure how he’ll get back to the UAE right now. He has lived in the UAE his entire life. His family is still in the United Arab Emirates. He is concerned that he will be detained at immigration right away.”
According to Mr Almazar, shame prevents many more of Hushpuppi’s victims from coming forward.
“The con was extremely sophisticated. Professionals were persecuted. Some people are hesitant to admit what has occurred.”
Qatari school fraud
Abbas’s final big scam before his arrest in Dubai in June 2020 was straight-up identity theft, inspired by his youth’s Yahoo Boy romance scams.
He pretended to be a New York banker in order to entice his victim, a Qatari businessman looking for a $15 million loan to build a new school in the Gulf state.
Between December 2019 and February 2020, Abbas and a group of alleged middlemen in Kenya, Nigeria, and the United States groomed and duped the victim out of over a million dollars.
Some of it was laundered through the purchase of a $230,000 watch.
However, the gang’s cracks began to show soon after.
One member threatened to expose the entire scheme because he was dissatisfied with the money he was receiving.
Abbas was determined to silence him.
“I want him to go through serious beating of his life,” he texted his contact, Nigerian police officer Abba Kyari.
“I want to spend money to put this boy in jail and keep him there for a long time.”
Mr Kyari is accused of falsely arresting and detaining the middleman for a month in a filthy Nigerian cell.
And now, Mr. Kyari is wanted in the United States on suspicion of fraud, money laundering, and identity theft. He has previously denied any criminal involvement with Abbas and has not responded to requests for comment from the BBC.
Still attracting followers
BEC fraud is a major problem all over the world. According to the FBI, BEC fraud cost $1.8 billion in 2020.
According to court documents, Abbas’s crimes cost victims nearly $24 million in total. However, some believe the true total could be much higher.
About eight months before his arrest and subsequent transfer to the United States to stand trial, he changed his Instagram handle from “Billionaire Gucci Master” to “Real Estate Developer.”
Despite him pleading guilty in April to money laundering, Hushpuppi’s social media is still live and attracting followers.
We contacted Instagram to find out why his account was still active. According to the BBC, the social media platform conducted an investigation into his account but decided not to close it.
Hushpuppi’s Snapchat account was deleted just days after we asked the same question.
Hushpuppi’s influence endures, according to Dr. Oyenuga, because he is still regarded as a role model: “We live in a country where a lot of young people are suffering.” They see another young person, who was once like them, achieve greatness.
“I’ve seen parents bring their children to learn how to be Yahoo boys.”
Everyone knows Hushpuppi committed a crime, but it’s understandable, according to Seye: “No one prays to be poor.” So, when you see someone who is wealthy, you will pray to God to grant you his wealth.”