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How Mobsters Ran a Fake U.S. Embassy in Ghana For Over 10 Years

Consular services just got a whole lot edgier.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

Forget stealing credit card information and making fake IDs. One group of identity fraudsters faked an entire U.S. embassy — for a decade.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of State announced it had shut down a fake embassy in Ghana this summer with the help of local authorities. Turkish and Ghanaian organized crime gangs ran the scam with the help of a Ghanaian attorney, according to the State Department.

The criminals weren’t just in it for the adrenaline rush of processing consular paperwork, though. It was a lucrative enterprise that charged unknowing marks about $6,000 each for “fraudulently obtained, legitimate U.S. visas, counterfeit visas, false identification documents,” and other services, the State Department said.

It operated for about a decade in part because local authorities were paid to “look the other way,” the State Department said. The site was careful to cover its tracks: The fake embassy shuttled its victims to and from “embassy” meetings, and refused to accept walk-in appointments so that savvier customers wouldn’t stumble onto the operation.

The scam targeted customers in remote parts of West Africa, driving them to Ghana’s capital of Accra. There, fraudsters used an apartment building and dress shop as fronts and to produce the fake documents (sewing machines in the dress shop, for instance, were used to bind fake passports). The fake embassy had an American flag flying out front and a photo of President Barack Obama and embassy signs inside. The criminal ring running the scam even advertised its services in neighboring Togo and Ivory Coast.

And the U.S. Embassy in Ghana wasn’t the only victim of this elaborate identity theft; it also operated as a fake embassy for the Netherlands. The “consular officers” at the fake embassy were Turkish citizens who spoke both English and Dutch.

“For about a decade it operated unhindered,” the State Department said. But finally an informant tipped off Diplomatic Security agents in the (real) U.S. Embassy’s regional security office, which led to the fraudsters’ demise. Business was apparently booming when they were caught; authorities found over 150 passports from 10 countries and visas to the United States, European Union’s Schengen Zone, and other countries during their raids.

The State Department did not clarify how many people had been scammed, or how many had been allowed to travel to the United States on the illegitimate visas.

The story isn’t quite over, though. Several suspects still remain at large, according to the State Department. No word on whether one of them is a Nigerian prince.

Photo credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer