FBI seeks Nigerian hacker who stole $30 million from New York

The story of a spectacular Internet fraud that also leads to Hong Kong, Jakarta and Lübeck.

An intensive care bed in New York, photographed on March 31, 2020: In the first few weeks of the corona pandemic, there was an acute shortage of ventilators in the city. A Nigerian hacker exploited this mercilessly.

Misha Friedman/Getty

On the evening of the big coup, Chidozie Collins writes Obasi a final, haunting email. “This delivery is of the utmost importance due to the Covid crisis,” reads the short message sent to New York from a computer in Nigeria on March 31, 2020. “Please transfer the amount as soon as possible.”

Two hours later, the 29-year-old Nigerian is a rich man. $12.6 million is transferred to his Hong Kong account, followed by another $18 million. Obasi transfers the money immediately. After that, his trail is lost.

On September 9, 2022, two and a half years after the transfers, the FBI released an arrest warrant for Obasi. “He got the New York authorities to transfer $30 million for ventilators that didn’t exist,” the US federal police said in a statement.

Internet fraud scandals mostly remain hidden; even when convicted, the public hardly ever learns the details of what happened. In this case it is different. The American investigators documented Obasis’ spectacular fraud step by step. Thanks to the 64-page indictment, what happened between West Africa and the USA at the beginning of the corona pandemic can be traced almost completely.

It’s an amazing tale of criminal cunning and agility. About the global network of cybercriminals. And about the authorities being overwhelmed during the first Corona wave.

Passed out as a representative of an Indonesian company

Obasis scam starts as it ends – with an email: «Hi, I was wondering if you would get my emails regarding the employment contract. Let me know.”

Obasi writes these lines in mid-March 2020, in the middle of the first Corona storm. On the Internet he searches for e-mail addresses of Americans who sell medical devices. Finally he sends the message to around 160 people, signed by “Marc Alfredo”, an alias.

Among the few who responded to the strange email was B.T., according to the indictment, the owner of a medical device company in New York. Obasi then specified his offer: he was an employee of Tawada Healthcare, a company based in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, he wrote in another email. His company is looking for a representative in the United States who will find customers for ventilators and process the corresponding payments. As a fee, Obasi promises 5 percent of the respective transaction amount.

The bluff works, B.T. wants to cooperate.

This is not just due to coincidence: at least at first glance, Obasis’s offer seems quite credible. The Indonesian company that “Marc Alfredo” poses as its representative actually exists – and it sells ventilators. Obasi can also be reached by phone and sends his messages from an email address that is confusingly similar to the actual company address.

The Nigerian is by no means a beginner anyway: according to the indictment, in previous years he had repeatedly succeeded in winning over unsuspecting Americans for short-term “business relationships”. Obasi also posed as a representative of foreign companies and tricked his victims into cashing fake money checks and transferring them to his accounts in Dubai and Hong Kong.

Obasi has already earned several hundred thousand dollars with it. But now, in the first chaotic weeks of this pandemic, far higher amounts are tempting.

3000 German ventilators offered

On March 20, 2020, five days after the first contact, B. T. signs a fake employment contract with Taweda. Then he immediately goes in search of customers.

On March 22, B.T. emailed: «It seems that almost all hospitals are procuring equipment for the pandemic. I look forward to working with you.” Obasi replies just an hour later: “We have everything in stock and are producing even more to help fight the pandemic.”

On March 28, B.T. contacts Obasi with the New York City Health Department. The office is responsible for the supply of public hospitals in the American state. It’s aggressively looking for ventilators — by the thousands.

On the same day, Obasi sent the authority an initial offer for 1,000 ventilators, followed a little later by a second offer for a further 2,000 devices. These are machines from the German company Dräger based in Lübeck.

The offers are well prepared: a few days earlier, Obasi had obtained an offer for the devices in question from the Indonesian company, which he claims to represent to New York. He was also in contact with the German manufacturer. On request, Obasi can now even send the New York authorities guarantee certificates for the devices. Apparently no one notices that they are fakes.

From here it goes quickly: Obasi demands an advance payment, without which the delivery cannot be triggered. On March 31, just three days after the first contact, he sent the e-mail quoted above, in which he insisted that the transfer be made soon.

And then . . . the millions flow.

Mercilessly exploited the Corona storm

Obasis’ brazen coup stuns. What explains the powerful New York agency falling into the clutches of a sophisticated but totally unknown imposter sitting at a computer across the Atlantic? Why are all safety checks omitted when purchasing?

There is no public statement from New York. A glance at the extraordinary situation in which the fraud is taking place is sufficient to explain this.

At the beginning of 2020, New York will be hit first and hardest by the corona pandemic of all American states. The effects are dramatic. After the first case, which was registered on March 3, the curve of daily new infections is pointing steeply upwards – and without a foreseeable end.

In the last week of March, when Obasi is negotiating with the authorities, things seem to have gotten completely out of hand. The number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 increases from 700 to 9,000 within a few days, and that of deaths from 150 to 800.

Just these days it is also becoming clear that there is a lack of one thing in New York hospitals in particular: ventilators. These have “become the most important piece of equipment that can make the difference between life and death”, writes the “New York Times” on March 25, 2020. tags the newspaper expects thatthat the state probably lacks around 18,000 devices. Certain hospitals are already forced to triage.

Obasi exploits this emergency mercilessly. He quickly realizes that the usual rules of the game no longer apply these weeks. And that with a bit of luck, almost anything is possible.

The fraud has so far not had any consequences for the Nigerian, of whom only the name, country of origin and age are known. There is no trace of him or his prey.

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