Nigerian Influencer Ramon ‘Hushpuppi’ Abbas Laundered Funds For North Korean Hackers, Says U.S. Department of Justice
David Dawkins, Culled from Forbes
New details have emerged about the case against Instagram influencer Ramon Abbas, who wowed the internet with pictures of his clothes, cars, money and lifestyle between 2012 and 2020. In July, Abbas was charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles with conspiring to launder hundreds of millions of dollars from “business email compromise” (BEC) frauds and other scams. On Wednesday, the Department of Justice shed more light on one of those scams: working with North Korean hackers to launder funds stolen from a Maltese bank.
According to a statement released by the Justice Department, Abbas took part in a “North Korean-perpetrated cyber-enabled heist from a Maltese bank in February 2019.” In a July statement, the Justice Department referred to the attack as “a $14.7 million cyber-heist from a foreign financial institution.” Both the date and amount match that of the attack on Malta’s Bank of Valletta in February 2019.
In July, Abbas’ then-lawyer Gal Pissetzky told Forbes that Abbas was not guilty of the charges and described Abbas as “an entrepreneur” who made his money legitimately through “real estate” and his work “promoting brands” as an “Instagram personality.”
Abbas is a Nigerian influencer with more than 2.5 million followers on Instagram. He has built a global following from posting pictures of his lavish spending on cars, watches, designer clothes and private jets. However, in late June, the 38-year-old was arrested in Dubai and arrived in the U.S. on July 3 to face criminal charges over allegations that he made “hundreds of millions of dollars” from business email compromise frauds and other scams.
Abbas’ criminal trial was due to be heard in late 2020, before the pandemic forced a delay.
On Wednesday, Abbas’ name emerged among details of a larger international criminal conspiracy involving so-called North Korean military hackers involved in “a series of destructive cyberattacks, to steal and extort more than $1.3 billion of money and cryptocurrency from financial institutions and companies,” according to the Justice Department statement on the new indictment.
FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate said in the statement that Wednesday’s unsealed indictment expands the FBI’s 2018 charges for the “unprecedented cyberattacks conducted by the North Korean regime.” Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers of the Justice Department’s National Security Division added, “As laid out in today’s indictment, North Korea’s operatives, using keyboards rather than guns, stealing digital wallets of cryptocurrency instead of sacks of cash, are the world’s leading bank robbers.”
The U.S. is specifically accusing North Koreans Jon Chang Hyok, 31, Kim Il, 27, and Park Jin Hyok, 36, of being members of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), a military intelligence agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The three North Koreans are described in the statement as being connected to “North Korean military hacking units” known in the cybersecurity community as Lazarus Group and Advanced Persistent Threat 38 (APT38).
Abbas is linked to one specific part of the “broad array of criminal cyber activities undertaken by the conspiracy,” namely money laundering and the attack on a “foreign financial institution. A spokesperson for the Bank of Valletta confirmed to Forbes that it was the target of a cyber incident in February 2019.
Abbas was linked to the North Korean conspiracy this week when federal prosecutors unsealed a charge against Ghaleb Alaumary, 37, of Ontario, Canada. Alaumary plead guilty to charges related to his role as a money launderer for the North Korean group filed in November 2020. The Justice Department connected Abbas to the North Korean hackers through Alaumary, who they allege “conspired” with “Ray Hushpuppi,” to “launder funds from a North Korean-perpetrated cyber-enabled heist from a Maltese bank in February 2019.”
The attack, although largely unsuccessful, was of such seriousness in Malta that the country’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, was forced to address parliament in 2019 over what the Times of Malta described as the “creation of false international payments that saw €13 million transferred to banks in four countries.” The amounts were reportedly “traced” and “reversed” and none of the bank’s customers lost their money.
Although Abbas claims he has often used the name “Billionaire Gucci Master,” Forbes believes he is worth far less than $1 billion.
• Culled from Forbes