- Nigerian influencer Ramon Abbas, also known as Hushpuppi, was known for flaunting his wealth online.
- In an affidavit, the FBI alleges his lifestyle was funded by a series of cybercrimes, including money laundering and fraud.
- The Dubai police raided his residence in 2020 and released a highly stylized video of the raid.
On the surface, Hushpuppi looked just like every other rich Instagrammer with millions of followers and millions to spend.
A Richard Mille watch. A Rolls-Royce Wraith. Shopping bags from Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel. You name it, the Nigerian influencer — real name Ramon Abbas — had it, and he showed it.
And while the online flexing brought him 2 million followers, it also led the FBI right to his doorstep. On November 7, Abbas, 40, was sentenced to 135 months in federal prison for money laundering and internet fraud.
Insider attempted to reach Abbas for comment for this story via his lawyers. Louis Shapiro, one of his attorneys, declined to comment. John O. Iweanoge, II, Abbas’ other lawyer, did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
A ‘Yahoo’ boy from the slums of Nigeria
Abbas grew up in a poor neighborhood of Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria. A driver named Seye, who knew him as a child, told the BBC that Abbas’ father was a taxi driver and that his mother worked at the market.
By Abbas’ own account — detailed in a handwritten letter, dated September 9, to the judge overseeing his trial — he started selling sneakers and clothing out of his car trunk in his neighborhood over 25 years ago. As his fashion business grew, Abbas was able to open boutiques around the city.
But everyone else, Seye told the BBC, knew Abbas made money through other means.
Abbas was a “Yahoo” boy, Seye said, referring to a term used to describe people who were involved in cybercrime, such as internet fraud and love scams.
“Hushpuppi grew up in my community, in Bariga,” Adedeji Oyenuga, an associate professor at the Sociology department at Lagos State University, told Insider. The neighborhood was considered a slum, with many people living in poverty.
As part of his Ph.D. research, Oyenuga spent six years living among a group of Yahoo boys in Abbas’ community.
Yahoo boys tend to be aged 15 and above, Oyenuga said. Some left school early. Others completed parts of their formal education but were unable to secure a place at a university or a job.
“They have a lot of awareness about what the world has to offer, but great frustration that they can’t find it for themselves because of unemployment and other thwarted opportunities to make a living,” Daniel Smith, a professor at the Anthropology department of Brown University, told Insider about the reasons some young Nigerians get mixed up in crime.
Very few succeed because of cybercrime — much less get to a level like Abbas’, Smith said.
Transforming into the influencer known as Hushpuppi
In 2014, Abbas left Nigeria for Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, the BBC reported.
It was around this time that his Hushpuppi online persona took off, per Bloomberg.
The captions on his now-defunct Instagram account were a mix of motivational wisdom and hashtags showing off the luxury brands that he wore in the photos.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing that it is stupid. #versace #versacemedusa #Versaceshoes #Versacebelt #Versacering #versacesneakers #Medusa #sneakers #sneakerhead #SneakerRoleModel,” read the caption on a now-unavailable post on Abbas’ Instagram account, per Bloomberg.
Back in Nigeria, Abbas’ Instagram presence turned him into a celebrity of sorts. He was seen rubbing shoulders with famous Nigerian musicians and prominent local politicians, the Pidgin-language service of BBC News reported in July 2020.
Social media posts catch the FBI’s attention
Abbas moved to Dubai and continued to upload images of himself posing with luxury vehicles and private jets while decked out in designer gear.
Insider scanned through pages of court documents, old media reports, and retail sites to put together a picture of Abbas’ spending habits. Among the items that made an appearance on his Instagram page: a black Bentley Bentayga (retail price starting at $160,000), a Disney x Gucci collection T-shirt ($650 and up), and a Richard Mille RM11-03 watch ($230,000).
Everyone scrolling through his public Instagram profile could see the extent of his money — including the FBI.
“We have a lot of people at the FBI who are constantly looking through open source media and other intelligence data to identify investigations that we should be going after, and this is one of those examples,” FBI special agent Andrew Innocenti, who was involved in the case, told Insider.
As far back as 2019, Nigerian media outlets were speculating that Abbas was a fraudster and a Yahoo boy, Innocenti said. Those reports plus his social media presence gave Innocenti and the FBI an inkling that something could be amiss, he added.
In October 2019, one of Abbas’ co-conspirators in online scams was arrested in a different investigation, but the police uncovered communications between the two, Innocenti said.
Eventually, Abbas’ social-media pages were used as evidence to establish charges against him, per the FBI affidavit filed against Abbas by Innocenti in June 2020.
The FBI was able to link the phone number that Abbas used to communicate with his co-conspirator to an email address that he used to create his Hushpuppi Instagram and Snapchat accounts.
The FBI was even able to use his birthday posts to verify his name and date of birth against his previous US visa application.
One of those posts, uploaded to Instagram on October 11, 2017, featured a cake that said “Happy Birthday Ramon” and the caption “Thanks so much @gucci for this special. God bless you guys at the Dubai Mall Gucci Store!!!,” per the affidavit.
According to the affidavit, Abbas “finances this opulent lifestyle through crime,” by targeting victims around the world “in schemes designed to steal hundreds of millions of dollars.”
In one scheme in January 2019, Abbas allegedly worked with a co-conspirator to launder $14.7 million that North Korean hackers stole from a bank in Malta, per a statement from the US Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.
In another scheme, Abbas and his co-conspirators allegedly tried to steal $100 million from an unnamed Premier League football club by intercepting payments using fake emails, per the affidavit.
The Dubai police caught up to him in June 2020, and they released a stylized video of the raid.
—Dubai Media Office (@DXBMediaOffice) June 25, 2020
It featured Abbas’ Instagram photos spliced together with footage of the police barging into his apartment, and cybercrime-style graphics layered over clips of people typing away at computers — a flashy end to the showy Instagram star.
‘Continue to shame those waiting to shame me’
While Abbas’ story has captivated the world, Smith, the Brown University professor, said it’s important to not let the attention further contribute to stereotypes that exist about Nigeria.
“Most Nigerians don’t hope that their country is going succeed because of crime,” Smith said. “People would much rather have more legitimate ways of making a living.”
In some ways, Abbas’ story fits right into the global narrative of online wealth-flaunting — inherited, acquired, earned, and ill-begotten alike. In others, Abbas’ story fits right in with that of the Yahoo boys he grew up with in Nigeria.
Many of the young men who made money through illegal means flaunted it everywhere — not just online, Oyenuga, the Lagos State University professor, said. If they made enough money, there was a chance they could move to a new community and re-establish themselves as a person who got rich through legitimate means, he added.
One thing, however, is clear to Innocenti: Abbas was good at the social-media game.
“Somebody like this doesn’t become as well known and as prolific as Abbas was unless he knew what he was doing. He capitalized on opportunities early in life and he utilized social media in a really effective way to gain followers,” Innocenti said.
After his arrest, Abbas even gained an additional 200,000 to 300,000 followers before Instagram took down his Hushpuppi account, Innocenti said.
Abbas was on top of his social-media game up until the very end, per Bloomberg.
On June 7, 2020, he posted a photo of a white Rolls Royce with the caption, “May success and prosperity not be a ‘once upon a time’ story in your life… Thank you lord for the many blessings in my life. Continue to shame those waiting for me to be shamed #RollsRoyce #RoyceRoyceCullinan #RR #AllMine.”
Two days later, the Dubai police was at his door.