Billionaire Gucci Master: Inside Influencer Hushpuppis Million-Dollar Heist
Nigerian social media star Ramon Abbas is known by many names among his over 2.5 million Instagram followers: Billionaire Gucci Master, Hushpuppi, and now, international money launderer. The 37-year-old influencer pled guilty to one count of money laundering in a California Court in April. Hushpuppi attempted to steal more than $1.1m from an unnamed individual who wanted to fund a new children’s school in Qatar. But this is just one of many schemes from Hushpuppi’s decade-long criminal spree, reportedly costing victims an estimated $24m (£17m). With multiple victims targeted across the globe, Hushpuppi’s court records indicate that the social media influencer could be facing up to 20 years in prison and will need to ‘pay full restitution to the victims’.
Hushpuppi showcased his flashy lifestyle through Instagram, posing with cars, clothes, sneakers, and suits, flexing his wealth and wallet for his followers on a weekly basis. But shortly after posing in front of his new Rolls-Royce Wraith, Hushpuppi switched his bio from ‘Billionaire Gucci Master’ to ‘Real Estate Developer’ in a subtle attempt to legitimize his enterprise. Meanwhile, Kristi Johnson, acting director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said Hushpuppi was one of the ‘most high-profile money launderers in the world’. So how did a clout-chasing fleecer go from viral star to downward spiral? The answer lies in sloppy transactions, a heist that went wrong, and ultimately, greed, which caused this influencer to think more about what went on his grid than his inevitable repercussions.
Abbas started his career in international crime while living in the northeast region of Lagos. His father was a cab driver, and his mother sold bread while Abbas started his career as a car washer before diving deep into a life of cyber-crime. In the early days of Yahoo email addresses, Abbas created fake accounts under a variety of names and would solicit funds from unsuspecting victims. Abbas would pose as a stranded soldier from America, strapped for cash and stuck in Africa, looking for a way home. Other times, he would pose as an eligible bachelor, entering into online relationships with women, asking for money as their relationship developed. Abbas and a group of other individuals began referring to themselves as the “Yahoo boys” due to their successful email schemes. After several swindles, the group migrated from Lagos to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the scams got more elaborate, and the money continued to accumulate. During his time in Malaysia, Abbas emerged as the ringleader of the group of scammers and started self-identifying as a billionaire. This eventually led to a move to the United Arab Emirates, where Abbas continued to showcase his wealth through social media posts.
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Once in Dubai, Abbas’ wealth grew exponentially. Now known under the moniker “Hushpuppi,” Abbas started posting pictures in Ferraris, Maybachs, and Bentleys. He ordered crates of champagne to nightclubs, shared photos sporting $150,000 watches adorned with diamonds, and stated his designer luggage traveled in its own Rolls-Royce. But these flexes of wealth required more ambitious schemes to keep the funds coming, the most popular being his “Business Email Compromises.” The simple scheme involved creating email addresses only slightly different from their original senders. They would then mimic the emails of law firms and other businesses known for their wire transfers, send notices to expecting clients, and intercept the funds.
But as Hushpuppi began flexing more wealth on social media, his anonymity started to slip. He let slide his birthday on one post, which allowed the FBI and Interpol to determine his date of birth and link Hushpuppi to a recent visa application for a Dubai resident. When the SWAT team pulled into the Palazzo Versace in Dubai to arrest him, they found $40 million in cash, 13 automobiles with a collected worth of $6.8 million, along with 47 smartphones that were used throughout his cyber crimes. Hushpuppi and his crew were accused of running scams that netted a reported $456 million altogether.
The Scale Of The Schemes
A post shared by HUSHPUPPI (@hushpuppi)
After his arrest, additional crimes and email schemes started to emerge. One of them involved Abbas working with North Korean hackers to launder funds taken digitally from a Maltese bank. The heist occurred in February of 2019 and has been referred to by the Justice Department as “a $14.7 million cyber-heist from a foreign financial institution.” The Justice Department has also stated in another indictment that the partnership between Abbas and the North Korean military hackers may have resulted in the extortion of more than $1.3 billion in both fiat money and cryptocurrency. Another scheme during the Business Email Compromise (BEC) phase of Hushpuppi’s career involved a Premier League Football Club. Abbas attempted to set up a bank account in Mexico that would intercept payments from a private firm to the undisclosed football club. The technique was one Abbas perfected, changing email addresses by just a few key letters that caused confusion when it came time to send payments. The case of the football club resulted in nearly $100 million in payouts. BEC scams are most common in Nigeria, where the county operates nearly 50% of all confirmed scams. BEC and similar scams account for the majority of reported cybercrime losses in 2020, netting nearly $1.95 billion in total losses.
Phoning It In
A post shared by HUSHPUPPI (@hushpuppi)
While social media, Instagram, and smartphones ultimately brought fame to Hushpuppi, giving him millions of followers, it also became the source of his downfall. Abbas often used his main cell phone in Dubai to send incriminating texts to collaborators and other individuals involved. Several text messages were sent between Hushpuppi and Ghaleb Alaumary, his partner, in several BEC scams. The text messages serve as the basis for most of the criminal charges against Hushpuppi. While Abbas remains in Los Angeles waiting to be charged for his cyber-crimes, Alaumary has already pled guilty to money laundering charges. Throwing Abbas under the bus, Alaumary named Hushpuppi as a conspirator in the law firm BEC scams, the Malta bank heist, and the Premier League scam. Abbas has now split from his attorney, citing ‘irreconcilable disagreements regarding the theory of defense’ replacing him with another L.A.-based attorney. Two days before his arrest, Hushpuppi took to Instagram and chose to share a photo of a Rolls Royce with the caption: “May success and prosperity not be a ‘once upon a time’ story in your life…Thank you, Lord, for the many blessings in my life, continue to shame those waiting for me to be shamed.” As of September 2021, Instagram has stated Hushpuppi can continue using his account. But as the criminal charges keep piling up and a stipulation to “pay full restitution to the victims,” Hushpuppi may have to substitute his uber-wealthy content for more modest images. Will his followers drop off? Or will he reinvent himself as the legitimate influencer and social media star he has already pretended to be?
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Source: BBC, GreekReporter, Forbes, NYPost, Bloomberg, Instagram, TheGuardian, TheNational, PunchNG, DubaiLAD, TheSun
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