A drop in the ocean is a significant amount of water to a thirsty person.
AN investigation by the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, has uncovered an international crime gang known as Black Axe, masterminded by a Nigerian, which specialises in preying on health workers and has defrauded the State of €183,000 in a pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) scam.
The gang had harvested information from the emails of HSE staff with a target to secure up to €1 million from their elaborate fraud, but only managed to get €183,000, according to a report by Irish Examiner. The information gathered were used to set up bank accounts in online prepaid financial services, while they perfected plans to launder the money.
The trial established that two Nigerians – Oluwagbewikeke Lewis and Bashiru Aderibigbe – aided by two ‘low-level’ Cork-based operatives and technology, engaged in several fraudulent activities where the identities of a sizeable number of HSE or Tusla staff were used to make PUP claims in the first months of the pandemic. The two operatives have been jailed for their parts in the unemployment scam.
Aderibigbe was arrested by Detective Garda Kieran Crowley during what was a relatively routine act of stop-and-search policing in the Midleton area. Having signalled for the driver of a Mercedes to stop, the detective noticed that the driver was acting nervously and he decided to conduct a search for suspected drugs. No drugs were found. However, what was seized became a key part of the PUP fraud investigation.
Two false passports were discovered, two fraudulent bank documents were seized, and two phone SIM cards were located. The SIM numbers would correspond with numbers provided for the setting up of bank accounts for the fraudulent PUP claims. Most significant of all, however, was the seizure of a mobile phone.
Instead of communicating by text message, the criminals had used WhatsApp voice messages instead. These would prove vital in linking the two defendants with each other, linking them with other criminals, and providing vivid accounts of the modus operandi of the gang.
At the time this phone was seized in Midleton, Detective Garda Trevor Conroy, from Wexford and on secondment to the Department of Social Protection, had been examining patterns in suspicious PUP claims. It was later established that email addresses of the unsuspecting victims had been harvested and used to dupe them into providing further personal information that would advance the fraud.
Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan, confirmed that these health workers were oblivious to the claims that had been filed in their names and the payments made to accounts set up fraudulently from Cork, a country located in South-West Ireland.
A Nigerian interpreter assisted the Bureau to translate a web of WhatsApp recorded phone messages, which provided a unique insight into the workings of Black Axe as it targeted PUP payments. Operatives were also able to identify a number of the parties, including a man believed to be the leader of the criminal organisation known by the nickname ‘The Chairman’, a term of respect used among people involved in such gangs.
In one call, there is a conversation about how €1 million fraudulently claimed in pandemic unemployment payments would be laundered; in another, there is talk of how €30,000 of the proceeds of the Cork-based fraud was being laundered through accounts in Germany.
While fraud investigations typically involve detailed paper trails to follow the money, other policing strategies were involved, including the painstaking analysis of CCTV that could be gathered in coordination with the documented timing of withdrawals from the suspect accounts.
Aderibigbe was seen on security cameras on 22 occasions making withdrawals from the target accounts, in the course of which he pocketed €11,270 in cash from 13 different bank accounts. It was ultimately established in this way that in these 13 accounts, he had access to over €56,000 in cash from the fraudulent PUP claims.
A total of 74 PUP claims were observed in this fast-developing investigation. It was quickly becoming clear that this was a systematic scam, and the monies were being paid into 57 bank accounts. For instance, on August 8, 2020 Aderibigbe was seen on CCTV at the Crestfield Centre in Dooradoyle in Limerick City making one of the withdrawals.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence against his co-accused, Lewis, was the phone seized from him and the audio WhatsApp messages between Lewis and Aderibigbe and other parties.
When arrested, Aderibigbe made no comment during interviews with gardaí. Lewis was later arrested, and he also made no comment to the majority of questions he was asked and examination of WhatsApp messaging made it clear that the two co-accused have been friends for several years.
Detectives were satisfied from their analysis of the audio messaging WhatsApp that Lewis had direct contact with the director of the criminal organisation who was referred to as ‘The Chairman’.
Aderibigbe, 45, of Ballincollig, Co Cork, was sentenced to three and a half years with the final year suspended, while Lewis, 36, of Brookdale, Midleton, Co Cork, was sentenced to four years in prison with the last year suspended.