A Nigerian information technology worker has been indicted on federal wire fraud and identity theft charges after authorities said he and his co-conspirators filed false claims for pandemic-related unemployment benefits in 17 states.

 

Chukwuemeka Onyegbula, using the name "Phillip Carter," was linked to at least 253 fraudulent filings for unemployment benefits, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday in Seattle, AP reports.

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Onyegbula has been detained in Nigeria, but prospects for his extradition to the U.S. were unclear. Onyegbula works for Pan Ocean Oil Corporation Nigeria Limited, according to the Seattle U.S. Attorney's Office. Court documents did not list an attorney who might comment on his behalf, AP reports.

 

Washington, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Nevada, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin paid out nearly $290,000 on claims related to the case. Additionally, the federal Small Business Administration paid out $54,000 in COVID-19 economic disaster claims filed by Onyegbula and his co-conspirators, prosecutors said in a report by A.P.

 

Fraudulent claims for pandemic-related benefits severely victimized Washington state. According to state officials, it likely paid out more than $647 million in such fraudulent claims, though $370 million was recovered.

 

Onyegbula is the second Nigerian national charged with such fraud in U.S. District Court for western Washington. Abidemi Rufai, 42, a suspended Nigerian government official, has been accused of filing $350,000 in fraudulent claims in Washington and other states, with $288,000 making it into a bank account he controlled. According to federal prosecutors, he also sought to bilk the Internal Revenue Service of nearly $1.6 million.

 

Rufai was arrested on May 14 as he tried to travel from New York to Nigeria. A federal court in New York ordered him released on bond pending trial, but federal prosecutors in western Washington have been seeking to make sure he remains in custody, saying he poses a severe flight risk, is facile with fake identities, and that he's unlikely ever to be extradited if he makes it back to Nigeria.

 

A hearing is set for Friday to determine whether Rufai might be released pending trial. In a court filing Wednesday, assistant U.S. attorneys said that a recorded conversation between Rufai and his brother revealed that Rufai did not know a woman who had offered to act as his custodian should he be released.

 

The recorded conversation also suggested that Rufai had significantly more money than he led the court to believe, prosecutors said.

 

In a response filed Thursday, one of Rufai's attorneys, Michael C. Barrows, called the government's reading of the conversation "an absolute fabrication."

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