ABUJA, NIGERIA (BLOOMBERG) - A Nigerian social-media celebrity helped North Korean hackers launder money stolen from a Maltese bank, US officials said.
Ramon Olorunwa Abbas played a supporting role in cyber-scams perpetrated by three computer programmers accused of extorting more than US$1.3 billion (S$1.7 billion) of cash and cryptocurrency, the Justice Department said on Feb 17.
Abbas, who is widely known as "Hushpuppi" and is in United States custody while awaiting trial, has 2.5 million followers on Instagram, where he regularly posted photographs posing with luxury cars or boarding private jets.
North Korean state operatives "are the world's leading bank robbers," John Demers, head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, said, after unsealing the indictment of Jon Chang Hyok, Kim Il and Park Jin Hyok.
The trio and other unidentified North Koreans were involved in the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 and the attempted theft of nearly US$1 billion from Bangladesh's central bank in 2016, according to the US government.
More recently, the group has focused on stealing cryptocurrencies, according to prosecutors.
The hackers allegedly turned to a network including Abbas "to launder funds from a North Korean-perpetrated cyber-enabled heist" from an unidentified Maltese bank in February 2019.
The Nigerian worked with a Canadian, Ghaleb Alaumary, who US officials accused of organising teams to launder millions of dollars stolen by hacking automated teller machines, including from BankIslami in Pakistan and a bank in India, according to the Justice Department.
Alaumary, 37, began cooperating with US authorities in October 2019 and secretly signed a plea agreement last November, according to court papers unsealed in Los Angeles on Feb 17.
Abbas was extradited in July from Dubai to the US where he faces criminal charges of allegedly conspiring to launder hundreds of millions of dollars from "business email compromise" frauds and other scams.
Gal Pissetzky, Abbas' former lawyer, told Forbes magazine in July 2020 that he was "absolutely not guilty" of those charges and hadn't taken part in in any fraud.
Pissetzky and Abbas' other lawyer both quit the defence in January.
The Nigerian was part of a group that allegedly tricked a paralegal at a US law firm into wiring them almost US$923,000 in October 2019, according to US authorities.
He and a partner also are accused of plotting to steal 100 million pounds (S$165 million) from an unnamed soccer club in the English Premier League.