A Nigerian influencer who amassed millions of Instagram followers posting images of his luxury lifestyle and motivational messages has admitted to being a con-man.
Ramon Abbas, 37, who is known to his fans as Hushpuppi or the Billionaire Gucci Master, admitted to conning at least $24million out of businesses around the world including $1million meant for a children’s hospital in Qatar.
Abbas, who grew up the son of a taxi-driver father and bread-seller mother in a poor town near Lagos before moving to a penthouse in Dubai, now faces spending the next 20 years of his life behind bars in the US.
His other targets included a Maltese bank and several companies linked to an unnamed Premier League football club, the FBI says.
Ramon Abbas, 37, known to his online followers as Raay Hushpuppi, admitted to defrauding businesses and individuals out of at least $24million in online scams
Abbas had amassed some 2.5million Instagram followers by flaunting images of his super-luxe lifestyle alongside motivational messages to ‘never give up’
Kristi Johnson, who leads the FBI’s office in LA, said Abbas was ‘among the most high-profile money launderers in the world’ and was part of a network that defrauded businesses across the globe – though many of his victims were in the US.
Acting US attorney Tracy L. Wilkison added: ‘Mr. Abbas, who played a significant role in the scheme, funded his luxurious lifestyle by laundering illicit proceeds generated by con artists who use increasingly sophisticated means.
‘In conjunction with our law enforcement partners, we will identify and prosecute perpetrators of business email compromise scams, which is a massive and growing international crime problem.’
The FBI says Abbas and his network tricked businesses into handing over large sums of money using business email compromise – or BEC – attacks.
BEC attacks work by compromising the email accounts of companies or high-ranking business figures which routinely transfer large amounts of money.
Once the email accounts have been compromised – typically using crude phishing attacks which rely on users clicking a malicious link – the fraudsters wait until a large invoice is sent or received by the targets.
Abbas grew up the son of a taxi driver in Lagos, Nigeria, before moving to Dubai where he claimed to be a real estate investor
They then duplicate the invoice in exact like-for-like copy, and re-send it from an email address that appears identical to the original sender – only changing the recipient bank account for one that they control.
Typically, such an email is accompanied by an apology for getting the original account details wrong.
Such emails are often backed up by fake websites that duplicate the original client’s site, and phone numbers that closely mirror genuine ones.
Once the money is wired to that account, it is split up and spread out to bank accounts across the world with profits divided up among the scammers.
The FBI estimates that such attacks made up around 40 per cent of all money made from cybercrime in the US in 2020, and was the largest single category.
Such scams are particularly common in Nigeria, where around 50 per cent of all BEC scheme originate, according to data published by Bloomberg.
The schemes are so common that perpetrators even have a slang name name – known locally as ‘Nigerian big boys’.
Abbas, formerly a street seller in Lagos, claimed to have made his fortune by playing the real estate market in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere.
He ran a popular Instagram page under the moniker Hushpuppi, where he regularly posted pictures of his lavish lifestyle.
Typical Hushpuppi posts feature expensive vehicles such as boats, planes, helicopters and cars, along with designer outfits including Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Versace (pictured)
Abbas was arrested last year at his Dubai penthouse where FBI agents found some $40million in cash alongside 13 luxury vehicles and details of millions of potential victims
He lived in a penthouse apartment at the Palazzo Versace Dubai which he once bragged cost ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars’ to rent each year and contained ‘four Jacuzzis, a sauna and a private pool’.
A typical Hushpuppi Instagram post featured luxury cars – Bentley, Ferrari or Rolls Royce – designer outfits heavily featuring Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Fendi, diamond-encrusted jewelry, private jets and helicopters.
While most emanated from his Dubai home, other locations include Santorini, Paris, Rome and Kuala Lumpur.
In one particularly striking image, Abbas is seen holding a bottle of champagne on the deck of a boat, one fur-lined loafer kicked off, wearing a red Versace dressing gown with Hushpuppi monogrammed across his back.
Posts were often accompanied by motivational messages encouraging followers to ‘never give up’ on their dreams – touting Abbas’s own success as an example.
Among his admirers was Chelsea footballer Tammy Abraham, who replied to one particularly self-congratulatory birthday message by writing: ‘Happy birthday to my big bro for yesterday.’
But in June last year that facade was shattered when FBI agents raided Abbas’s Dubai home, hauling a confused-looking Abbas out in handcuffs.
Inside, agents said they had found $41 million in cash, 13 luxury cars valued at around $6.8 million, and phone and computer evidence containing more than 100,000 fraud files and the addresses of nearly two million possible victims.
Abbas was described by the FBI as one of the world’s most high-profile con-men, and is now facing up to 20 years behind bars
He was subsequently flown to the US, and transferred to jail in California where he remains until sentencing.
Abbas’s lawyer had previously claimed he was ‘kidnapped’ by the FBI, but has not responded to the guilty plea.
The plea took place on April 20, according to California court documents that were only unsealed this week.
Charges against him include conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to engage in money laundering, and aggravated identity theft.
Also charged are two Nigerian nationals and three Americans who are accused of playing a part in the scheme, which was run by Abbas.
Ms. Johnson added, ‘His celebrity status and ability to make connections seeped into legitimate organizations and led to several spin-off schemes in the U.S. and abroad.
‘Today’s announcement deals a crucial blow to this international network and hopefully serves as a warning to potential victims targeted with this type of theft.’