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'Elaborate scam' Two plead guilty to money-laundering scam involving €183K in fake PUP claims

While €30,000 was later traced to a German bank account, more than €150,000 of the funds obtained from fraudulent PUP payments is now unaccounted for.

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Oluwagbewikeke Lewis of Brookdale, Midleton, Co Cork, at Midelton Court. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Oluwagbewikeke Lewis of Brookdale, Midleton, Co Cork, at Midelton Court. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Oluwagbewikeke Lewis of Brookdale, Midleton, Co Cork, at Midelton Court. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

TWO men have pleaded guilty to a money-laundering conspiracy involving €183,491 in funds fraudulently obtained under the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) programme.

Cork Circuit Criminal Court heard that gardai intervened in the elaborate scam involving a Nigerian crime gang and managed to secure orders freezing €32,158 in various bank accounts set up as part of the conspiracy.

While €30,000 was later traced to a German bank account, more than €150,000 of the funds obtained from fraudulent PUP payments is now unaccounted for.

Detectives also obtained a recording of a call from one of the defendants to an individual nicknamed "The Chairman" who was believed to be the head of a Nigerian criminal organisation.

Judge Helen Boyle was told the bank accounts central to the scam were set up thanks to information obtained from a data breach whereby a cloned website was used to obtain personal details from people after falsely advising them they were required for jury service.

Oluwagbewikeke Lewis (36) of Brookdale, Midleton, Co Cork, and Bashiru Aderibige (44) formerly of Dwyers Road, Midleton, but now resident in Ballincollig, Co Cork, pleaded guilty before Judge Boyle to offences contrary to Section 71 of the Criminal Justice Act, 2006.

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Bashiru Aderibige (44) of Dwyers Road, Midleton, at Mallow District Court, Cork. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Cork Courts

Bashiru Aderibige (44) of Dwyers Road, Midleton, at Mallow District Court, Cork. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Cork Courts

Bashiru Aderibige (44) of Dwyers Road, Midleton, at Mallow District Court, Cork. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Cork Courts

Both were described as being involved at the lower end of the scam – though Lewis was the one heard in one recorded call in contact with "The Chairman".

Lewis also pleaded guilty to six counts of the possession of false instruments namely altered bank statements as well as one count of possession of stolen property, a British passport.

The court was told that 74 people clicked on the link which brought them to the cloned website.

From the details obtained, a large number of bank accounts were set up with An Post with the aim of fraudulently obtaining PUP payments.

The scam involved some members hacking information which contained email data of Health Service Executive (HSE) and Tusla employees.

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This was done in the belief that these staff members would work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and would not be making PUP claims.

The emails were used to send out fake jury notices - telling people they were required for jury trials and asking them to confirm personal details including their name, address, date of birth, mother's maiden name and PPS number.

Over a nine month period last year, over €180,000 in PUP claims were lodged and paid.

A total of 61 people made sworn statements to gardaí that the bank accounts were opened with their knowledge or authority.

Lewis, who has no previous convictions, is from Nigeria but has been living in Ireland for five years and is in a relationship with an Irish citizen.

He has a four-year-old son in Ireland as well as a son in Nigeria.

Aderibige, who is also originally from Nigeria, has been living in Ireland for 18 years and is an Irish citizen.

He has five children and has been working as a taxi driver.

Aderibige has no previous convictions in Ireland.

Judge Boyle was told that the major Garda investigation into the conspiracy involved searching properties, an analysis of extensive CCTV security camera footage and checking overseas bank transfers.

Detective Garda Kieran Crowley said gardaí arrested Lewis on November 6, 2020, after becoming suspicious as to the true identity of an individual in a Mercedes E class car in east Cork. Gardaí also noted that the driver (Lewis) was very nervous.

A search revealed two passports and two sets of bank statements. Both passports were in different names yet both had the photographs of Lewis.

Both documents were later found to be false.

Det Garda Crowley said no explanation was offered to gardaí at the time by Lewis as to the false documents.

Detective Garda Eimhear Keeshan, of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, said officers had conducted an extensive examination of CCTV footage and telephone records in respect of concerns over PUP claims.

Gardaí worked with officials of the Department of Social Protection as part of the investigation.

She said it was her belief that the various bank accounts were set up to launder money obtained through unjustified PUP claims.

Both defendants had been friends for a number of years and were seen together on CCTV footage arriving at the Crescent Shopping Centre in
Limerick where some of the funds were later withdrawn from one account.

In a subsequent search of Lewis's home, a fraudulent Nigerian passport was found as well as a baseball cap visible on one of the individuals
in the Limerick CCTV footage.

Phones seized showed extensive contacts between the two defendants for some time.

Contacts were also found with other unnamed individuals nicknamed "The Chairman" and "Ebony 3" involving audio messages, texts and WhatsApp contacts.

The court was told that "The Chairman" is believed to have been the leader of the conspiracy.

One audio message found by gardaí involved a conversation about how up to €1m in PUP monies could be claimed in Ireland.

"They were communicating with themselves and others to commit money-laundering offences involving PUP," she said.

Gardaí intervened and managed to freeze bank accounts containing a total of €32,158.

"The rest is not available to the State," Det Garda Keeshan said.

Judge Boyle was told that both defendants appeared before the court on signed pleas of guilty which had been indicated at an early stage.

Both now wished to try to raise compensation before sentencing was imposed with €11,000 in total available so far.

The judge remanded both in custody for sentencing before Cork Circuit Criminal Court on November 10.

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