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Alleged cybercriminal who stole identities in Washington part of larger investigation

Authorities allege a man arrested and accused of wire fraud may be part of a larger network named "Scattered Canary."

Am alleged cybercriminal looking to escape with hundreds of thousands of dollars in Washington’s unemployment benefits was arrested in New York’s JFK Airport Friday evening.

According to the U.S. Attorney General’s office, Abidemi Rufai, aka Sandy Tang, used the stolen identities of more than 100 Washington residents to file fraudulent claims with the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD) for pandemic-related unemployment benefits and tried to pull the same scheme in six other states.

U.S. authorities caught up to Rufai as he was making his way onto a flight to Amsterdam. Rufai was arrested on allegations of wire fraud and stealing more than $350,000 in benefits from ESD.

Washington lost $650 million to fraud last year and recovered $350 million.

The arrest highlights the impact of a much larger threat: Scattered Canary.  

“Scattered Canary is a West African cybercriminal organization that we published some information on back in 2019,” said Crane Hassold, senior director for threat research at the email streaming company, Agari. “What we saw in our research there was Scattered Canary was not just involved in some of the big cyber threats today like email compromise, but at the same time they were also involved in...dozens of scams and fraudulent activity.”

The fraudulent activity included, allegedly, submitting dozens of unemployment claims using stolen identities around the time the CARES Act was approved in early 2020.

Authorities said Rufai also used altered email addresses to submit these fraudulent claims between March and October 2020.

But Rufai is just one of many.

“We know that there are hundreds, if not thousands of actors out there doing something very similar, along the same lines that this individual was arrested for,” Hassold said. “So that’s just a really small drop in the bucket in the overall scope of the fraud that we saw last year when it comes to unemployment fraud.”

If found guilty, Rufai could face up to 30 years in prison. Yet despite the heavy sentence, the allure of a quick payday is just too great for some to pass up.

“As long as the money’s out there, they’ll be going at it,” Hassold said. “You have to think about it. Over the past year, this has been their Super Bowl. This has been their World Series. So when you have trillions of dollars up for grab, they’re going try as much as they can to get as much of that pie as possible.”