Nigerian national sentenced for Tn. COVID-19 scam

Published 4:45 pm Friday, February 23, 2024

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Staff Report

A Nigerian citizen, Valentine O.Odije, 35 years old, who currently resides in Georgia, was sentenced to 21 months in prison by the Honorable Thomas A. Varlan, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Odije pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use an unauthorized access device related to his and his co conspirators’ unlawful use of debit cards funded with Covid-19 unemployment insurance

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(“UI”) benefits in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1029(b)(2). Following his incarceration, he will be on supervised release for three years. In addition, he was ordered to pay restitution for $661,082.19 and to forfeit $86,651.68 in cash.

As outlined in the written plea agreement filed with the court, Odije was recruited into an

ongoing scheme by individuals who were filing fraudulent UI benefits claims during the pandemic. The fraudulent claims resulted in UI benefits being loaded onto debit cards that Odijepossessed. Odije’s role in the scheme was to use those debit cards to withdraw cash andpurchase money orders. Odije knew the debit cards were funded with unlawfully obtained UI benefits. Odije recruited others to help him access the UI benefits on the cards, selecting the cards for them to use and instructing them on how to withdraw cash and purchase money orders.

On July 17, 2020, Odije and his coconspirators used four debit cards at a retail store in the Eastern District of Tennessee to collectively withdraw $23,527.99 in UI benefits. When Odije and his coconspirators were arrested that day, Odije possessed 315 debit cards, 204 of which were funded with a total of $661,082.19 in unlawfully obtained UI benefits.

Two of Odije’s coconspirators, Dianne M. Coffie and Ayeesha Shah, previously pleaded guilty in the Eastern District of Tennessee to conducting unlawful transactions with an access device. Coffie was sentenced to three years’ probation and ordered to pay $90,000 in restitution.

Shah was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution. U.S. Attorney Francis M. Hamilton III of the Eastern District of Tennessee, Resident Agent in Charge Jason Brown of the United States Secret Service and Special Agent in Charge,Matthew Broadhurst of the United States Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General, made the announcement.