BY YEPOKA YEEBO*
On Friday 2 December 2016, a curious story appeared on the website GhanaBusinessNews.com. “Ghana security authorities shut down fake U.S. Embassy in Accra,” the headline declared. For a decade, the story went, there had been a fake U.S. embassy in the Ghanaian capital. The fraudsters behind it had flown the American flag from their building and even hung a portrait of Barack Obama on the wall. The criminal network behind the scam had advertised on billboards and prowled the most remote villages of west Africa, searching for gullible customers. They brought them to Accra, and sold them visas for as much as $6,000 (£4,495).
The story was an immediate hit. “In less than an hour we were getting 20,000 views on the website for that story alone,” Emmanuel Dogbevi, the website’s managing editor, told me. Two days later, the news agency Reuters picked up the story and it swiftly became an international sensation.
“No Passport Control: Mobsters busted after running FAKE US Embassy in Ghana for 10 years” (The Sun). “‘Sham’ US embassy in Ghana issued fake visas for a decade” (Fox News). “Ghana uncovers fake US embassy that issued authentic visas” (Deutsche Welle). “The actual US embassy in Accra shut down the fake embassy over the summer,” stated the Chinese news agency Xinhua. “This takes counterfeiting operations to a whole new level,” read a comment about the story on the Times of India website, which triggered an argument between readers over which country did corruption better.
According to a U.S. state department statement, which had been published in early November, the fake embassy was operated by “figures from both Ghanaian and Turkish organized crime rings and a Ghanaian attorney practicing immigration and criminal law”. The American authorities supplied a picture of an old, two-storey pink building with a tin roof, originally captioned: “The exterior of the fake embassy in Accra, Ghana.” The caption was later changed to: “One of several buildings used by the disrupted fraud ring.”
Reuters reported that the Americans, with the help of the Ghana Detectives Bureau, had raided the fake embassy. Several people were arrested, and officials seized 150 passports from 10 different countries. The Ghanaian police did not distinguish themselves. The conmen eluded them long enough to move the operation out of Ghana, and get their associates out on bail. But, the U.S. state department said, the number of fraudulent documents coming from west Africa had gone down by 70% as a result of this and other raids, and “criminal leaders no longer have the political cover they once had”.
The fake embassy became a sensation largely because the story was so predictably familiar. The Africans were scammers. The victims were desperate and credulous. The local police officers were bumbling idiots. Countless officials were paid off. And at the end, the Americans swooped in and saved the day. There was only one problem with the story: it wasn’t true.
On the morning the news broke, Seth Sewornu, who was then head of Ghana’s visa and document fraud unit, got a text message from the director of the police criminal investigation department (CID). Like everyone else, the director wanted to know about Sewornu’s bust. “I was receiving a lot of calls,” Sewornu said when we met earlier this year in an open-air restaurant near the police headquarters in Accra. “A reporter from BBC called me, a CNN reporter called me. The Ghanaian media houses were all calling to find out. I got calls from other police officers.” The U.S. state department story had said that the scammers had also been running a fake Dutch embassy, so the Dutch called, too.
Sewornu was stumped. He knew nothing about any investigations into a fake embassy. He tried to find out which officers had been involved, but the police unit credited by the Americans, the Ghana Detectives Bureau, didn’t exist. Ghana’s national Swat unit, the CID and the Bureau of National Investigation all told Sewornu that they weren’t involved either.
It didn’t make any sense. The entire story seemed to be based on one source: the U.S. state department website. And their source was the U.S. embassy in Accra. “So I called the American embassy to find out, and my contact said: ‘I don’t know anything about it,’” said Sewornu. “It was like they were tightlipped over the matter.”
In Ghana, it can be extremely difficult to obtain visas for travel to other countries. The application processes tend to be expensive, time-consuming and usually end in disappointment. As a result, over the past two decades, a thriving underground economy has sprung up in Accra. It ranges from low-level conmen who can produce counterfeit paperwork to sophisticated criminal organisations that operate in multiple countries. In 2016, of all the American embassies in the world, the one in Ghana had the highest number of pending fraud cases, according to a U.S. state department report.
The operators and middlemen who help circumvent the visa application processes are so ubiquitous that few people realise that what they do is illegal, Sewornu told me. “Some are very bold, they advertise visas on TV,” he said. “Plenty have fallen victim. They think it’s authentic once it’s on TV.”
Sewornu has been a policeman for 23 years, and as we spoke, he was serious and reserved – but when he talked about particularly audacious crimes, he started grinning. “I’ve lost count of the musicians,” he said. “A lot of them are into visa fraud. They go on tour and take people who can’t even perform. They just play CDs and lipsync.” Then, those people vanish.
In the past, he said, passports were easier to tamper with. Fraudsters would steal a real passport belonging to a well-travelled person with valid visas and replace the picture with one of a paying client. The classic method was to put the passport in a freezer for about an hour, which caused the film on the photo page to peel away. Then, said Sewornu, the scammers could “clean off the original picture with chemical eraser, and put in a new one, printed on a thin, almost transparent film.”
Now that passports contain biometric data, such as fingerprints, it is becoming harder and harder to get away with this kind of crime. “You can’t fake everything 100%,” said Sewornu. Instead, the underground economy has started to focus on faking the documents required for legitimate visa applications, both for short visits and for people who want to emigrate. For the right fee, you can get hold of school certificates that turn you from an unskilled worker to a PhD, or bank records that turn you from a shoeshine boy into a successful entrepreneur. Of course, scammers do still offer fake visas, but most of these are not actually intended to get the bearer past border control in other countries. Instead, they’re meant to make it look – to embassies – like you’ve travelled extensively, and returned to Ghana each time. As if you are the kind of person who has no intention of becoming an illegal immigrant.
In 2010, as the number of fake travel documents continued to rise, Ghana’s government founded the Document Fraud Expertise Centre, which verifies documents for embassies, banks and the police. It’s the only one in west Africa, which reflects the sheer scale of Ghana’s shadow visa industry. In 2016, about half the documents submitted to them for testing turned out to have been forged.
For centuries, Ghana was a magnet for immigrants, not a country people were trying to leave. The country’s population of about 28 million is made up of about a dozen ethnic groups, most of which trace their origins to other parts of west Africa. In 1957, after Ghana won independence from Britain, the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, embarked on a massive infrastructure programme. All that infrastructure needed people to build it, and partly as a result, by 1960, immigrants made up 12% of Ghana’s population. By comparison, less than 4% of the population of England and Wales had been born abroad.
In 1966, Nkrumah was deposed in a military coup. The country was destabilised and people started to leave almost immediately. Over the next three decades, much of the economy collapsed, unemployment soared and millions of Ghanaians left in search of work.
Today, Ghana is one of the most stable and prosperous countries in west Africa. But while the population is expanding, the economy is not. Each year, 250,000 young people compete for just 5,000 new jobs. Lack of prospects drives many young people abroad. Of the Ghanaian-born citizens currently living abroad, 70% are in other west African countries. Of the remaining 30%, most live and work in the U.K., Germany, Italy, Canada and the U.S.
A small, but significant number of Ghanaians simply travel to these countries on tourist visas, then stay on when their visas run out and work illegally. So wealthier countries now assume that most Ghanaians who apply for temporary visas will become illegal immigrants. Visa policies have been designed to filter out the young and unskilled and the poor, says Paolo Gaibazzi, a research fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Germany. Such policies sometimes also exclude people who are perfectly qualified and would be granted visas if they were coming from wealthier countries. In one case not long ago, a Ghanaian consultant orthopaedic surgeon with two decades of experience was shocked to have his application rejected for a short-term visa to attend a medical conference in Spain.
Even with legitimate, professional help, filling out the application form for a U.S. tourist visa is a maddeningly difficult and unforgiving process. Applicants have to provide their parents’ dates of birth, but Ghana had no complete register of births until 1965, so a lot of people just don’t know. Then there’s the fee: around $160, which amounts to about 75% of Ghana’s average monthly wage. That fee is non-refundable. If you are rejected, and you want to apply again, you will have to pay another $160.
Once you have done the paperwork and paid, you still don’t get your visa. You just get to book a visa interview at the U.S. embassy. Well before dawn on most weekdays, there is a sizable crowd of people outside the embassy in Accra waiting to go in. “Applicants often waited outside the embassy compound for extended periods, presenting a poor image of the US government and causing a security issue,” according to a 2017 U.S. state department report.
Once you get to your appointment, you must produce proof that you are who you say you are. Then it gets harder: fewer than 10% of people in Ghana have a salaried job, but many applicants have to present a letter of introduction and a payslip from their employer. You will also need a letter of invitation from someone in the U.S. who can vouch for you. Got all that? Congratulations. You can still be rejected on the spot, with no explanation.
People in countries such as Ghana are faced with a simple choice: apply over and over again and spend huge sums of money each time, or pay someone who promises to get you that visa. Each time a new con is discovered, the embassies panic and add another layer of scrutiny to their visa application processes. Each layer of scrutiny gives the fraudsters an extra hurdle – but also creates extra business. “People try to level the playing field. This is where the migration industry kicks in,” said Gaibazzi. “The exclusion from legal ways of migrating creates so-called illegality.”
Kwesi Abrantie is one of the thousands of Ghanaians who have knowingly paid for fake documents to pad out a visa application. In 2008, as the country was going through an economic downturn, Abrantie’s business – signing people up for management courses – began to falter. “Things were getting really bad here,” he said. “I thought hustling in the U.S. would be way better than going through this hand-to-mouth thing in Ghana.” A little fraud was a small price to pay if it meant he could send home enough money to keep a roof over his family’s heads. The tricky part was getting to the U.S.
Without much money, Abrantie (who asked that his name be changed) stood almost no chance of getting a U.S. visa. He went to see the forgers, and they sold him a story. “I was going to attend, in quotes, a cousin’s graduation,” Abrantie said. The “connection men” – as the middlemen who obtain visas through dubious means are known in Ghana – paid a student in New York to vouch for him. They gave Abrantie the student’s name and address, as well a real letter from the university stating that he was invited to the ceremony. It cost him 7,000 Ghanaian cedi up front, with another 5,000 if he was successful – a total of about £2,000, or twice Ghana’s annual per capita income.
The men Abrantie met filled out his form, paid his fees and went with him to the embassy. The scheme didn’t work. “Unfortunately, I was bounced,” he said. After the interview, Abrantie was handed a piece of paper explaining why his visa may have been rejected. He got the impression the Americans didn’t think he had enough money to pay his way in the U.S.
Abrantie still wanted a visa – or his money back. So the agents passed him on to some friends of theirs who specialised in getting Dutch visas. This time, he would pose as a salesman at a truck company, heading to Holland to buy tyres. (The company was real, Abrantie said.) Abrantie said the connection man he was dealing with ran a legitimate travel agency with a sideline in visa fraud. He found out about the firm because three other friends had successfully gone abroad with their help.
Once again, the agents filled in his forms and padded out his application, this time with a fake bank statement, Abrantie told me. And this time, the Dutch thought Abrantie had too much money in the bank. At the interview, they asked him where it had all come from. Abrantie said something unconvincing about being a businessman, and it seemed as if he had been bounced again. But his connection man, who had previously run a business that imported goods from Holland, called a contact at the embassy and demanded to know why his employee was being denied a visa. Shortly afterwards, his visa was granted. (When I asked the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs about this incident, it said: “There are strict guidelines if someone wants to apply for a short-stay Schengen visa in Ghana. Connections with businessmen have nothing to do with that.”)
Abrantie was packing his bags when his friends pointed out that he didn’t speak a word of Dutch, and wouldn’t have enough time to get his bearings, find a job and figure out if he could survive as an illegal immigrant before his real visa ran out. He decided to take his chances hustling in Ghana instead.
The men Abrantie paid had no real office. He met them in restaurants and out in the street. They certainly didn’t have an entire fake embassy, complete with flags and presidential portraits. The story seemed so extraordinary that one day in early June, I decided to go in search of this fake embassy, which the U.S. state department claimed had operated from a house in an old neighbourhood north-west of central Accra.
The pink house sits on a tumbledown street, part industrial, part residential, overlooked by a hulking shoe factory. There are mechanics’ shops, stalls selling spare parts and a huge, dusty football field. The house itself is stately but decrepit, the walls covered with a layered patchwork of faded paint and cement. In the house’s front yard, there is a small tailor’s shop. (According to the U.S. state department story, a dress shop near the fake embassy was one of the fronts for the operation: “It was purported to house an industrial sewing machine they would use to re-create the binding on the fake passports.”)
When I visited, I found a man named Pierre Kwetey, who was cutting a pattern out of turquoise and yellow wax print fabric. He was adding an ever-widening series of chalk lines to a shirt for a man who was so big that “you’d think he’s pregnant”. Kwetey’s shop is less than two metres across at its widest point. The walls are yellow, with shallow seams of dust in the uneven cement. Above the cutting table, there’s a crucifix draped with two rosaries.
Kwetey first saw the fake embassy story when someone sent him a link via WhatsApp. He was totally baffled. “If I’m doing such illegal business, you’ll see my Range Rover parked in front,” he joked.
A few days later, when I returned to the pink house, I came across one of the building’s owners, Susana Lamptey. Sitting in the small courtyard in front, Lamptey was wearing a yellow dress and a headscarf, and looked even less like a crime kingpin than Kwetey. Her grandfather had built the house long before she was born, she said, probably in the 1920s or 1930s. When he died, he left it to his eight children. Most of them moved away and cut their portions of the house into flats, which they rent out.
In the entrance hall, there were no portraits of U.S. presidents. Instead, it smelled comfortingly of flour and margarine – Lamptey runs an open-air bakery in the back yard. The rest of the yard is a tangle of washing lines and uneven cement. From the second floor, you can see clear across Accra’s industrial area: flyovers, rail yards, factories, and the pungent Odaw river.
When the Americans announced that her house was a fake U.S. embassy, Lamptey was one of the last to hear about it. A friend called to say it was all over the internet, she said. “I was really annoyed. Because how? And from where?”
Lamptey said there had never been a police raid. Instead, after the story broke, she and the family marched down to the local police station to find out whether they were really under investigation. The cops told them there was nothing to worry about.
In the days after the story was published – and in the following months – Lamptey was plagued by journalists, all asking the same questions about her alleged life of crime. She has denied everything, every single time. In response to her denials, the U.S. embassy doubled down on its story. “We cannot speculate at this time what has occurred at that building after the initial raid,” the U.S. press attache told Ghanaian reporters in December 2016. “The photo used in the online article is of the building the criminal enterprise used to conduct their fraud operations.”
When we met, Lamptey still couldn’t understand why anyone had believed the story. Look at this place, she said. “If there was an American embassy for 10 years in this house, by now everybody would be in America!” As it happened, Lamptey had applied for an American visa – a real one, at the real U.S. embassy, in the spring of 2016. She was rejected.
Lloyd Baidoo, a detective in Accra’s regional police force, said he was the one who took the photo of Lamptey’s house. In person, Baidoo looks like the classic film-noir cop: chiselled, muscular and world-weary. He’s been on the force for 18 years. The living room of his flat, in the western suburbs of Accra, was covered in huge pictures from his wedding. A football match was on TV, on mute.
Baidoo first heard about the fake embassy in June 2016, months before the Americans put out their story, when his team got a tip about a visa-fraud ring. Someone was allegedly issuing U.S. visas out of an old pink house in Adabraka on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When it was open, they flew an American flag and hung up a portrait of Obama.
Baidoo and another officer went to check it out. They drove past the pink house a few times, and Baidoo took some pictures. He couldn’t see anything suspicious, so he walked around the back of house, in plain clothes, to have a closer look. Wandering around the rundown property, Baidoo quickly realised nobody would buy a $6,000 visa there. “I did not take five minutes to conclude that,” he said.
Later that week, Baidoo got a second tip. Another operation in Adabraka was issuing U.S. visas. This time, there were more details: it was allegedly run from the apartment of a man named Kyere Boakye, who charged 2,000 Ghana cedi (about £350) for his services. This time, the information seemed to check out. Baidoo decided to raid the property.
Just before dusk, in late June 2016, a Ghanaian Swat team, five detectives, and a diplomatic security officer from the U.S. embassy swooped in on the apartment. Inside, officers found 135 Ghanaian passports. The majority would turn out to be counterfeit. There were other passports too, mostly from other African countries. Some appeared to be real, but might have been stolen or bought on the black market. The passports contained visas for, among other countries, the U.S., the U.K., South Africa, China, Kenya and Iran.
Detectives also found two dozen counterfeit rubber stamps, used to endorse the official letters for visa applications. There were stamps purporting to be from the Ghana Immigration Service, Barclays bank, the National Investment Bank, several non-existent doctors and even a firm of lawyers with offices below the apartment. Three men were arrested in the raid: Kyere Boakye, Benjamin Ofosu Barimah and Jeffery Kofi Opare. All three were charged with forgery and possession of forged documents. It was a month before they made bail.
It wasn’t a fake embassy, but it was a major case. Baidoo wrote to the passport office, banks, businesses, government departments, and even the country’s biggest teaching hospital – 45 institutions in all – in order to confirm whether or not each of the suspicious-looking documents was fake. By the time Baidoo was done, two months after the raid, the police docket was the size of three phone books, and the case was ready to go to trial.
Then, in December 2016, the U.S. state department put out its story about the discovery of a fake embassy. Dep Supt Sewornu took over the case, and Baidoo was moved on to a different police department. (Sewornu, too, was soon transferred.) Since then, the case has gone nowhere, having been delayed largely for banal administrative reasons. When I went to a hearing for the case in June, the three defendants were there, but their lawyer wasn’t. Neither was the prosecutor. The courtroom was almost empty. It didn’t look like a case that had made news around the world. After some muttering between the judge and another prosecutor, the hearing was adjourned.
Outside the courtroom, Kyere Boakye told me he had no idea why he kept being hauled into court. He didn’t think there was going to be a trial. Boakye insisted that he was just an ordinary travel agent. “It’s my clients who brought every paper they found [in the raid],” he said. “I have never forged anything.”
As for the idea that he had been running a fake U.S. embassy, he insisted it was ridiculous. Despite the case being all over the papers, and all over the internet, there was not a single witness to back up the story.
When Detective Baidoo finally got to the bottom of the fake embassy story, he was perplexed. Sitting together in his flat, we looked over the U.S. state department’s story. Almost every detail in it came from the faulty intelligence Baidoo’s unit had received in June 2016. The photo of the pink house – the one that had brought the world’s media to Susana Lamptey’s doorstep – was, he insisted, one he had taken himself when surveilling the building.
Another photo that appeared in the original U.S. state department story had showed a heap of passports strewn on the ground. That one, Baidoo said, had come from his raid on Kyere Boakye’s apartment, not from a raid on any fake embassy. In the top-left corner of the photo, you could see part of a maroon trainer, which, Baidoo said, belonged to him. “I was the one standing there,” Baidoo said, going out into his hallway to show me the shoe in question. “In my independent opinion, I’d say the story was fake.”
Sewornu was equally sure that there was no story. He said that his contacts at the U.S. embassy told him someone at the state department had taken the faulty intelligence and “kind of married the story” with details of Baidoo’s raid. The two cases had been merged into one. It might have started with a diplomatic cable – a classified memo – sent from the U.S. embassy in Accra to the state department in Washington DC on 25 July 2016, titled “Ghana: Fake US Embassy Closed for Business.”
When I asked the U.S. state department for comment, an official simply told me that U.S. Diplomatic Security Service officials work with Ghanaian authorities to uphold the integrity of the visa system. The state department declined to provide additional information in response to specific questions. They referred all queries to the government of Ghana. Ghana’s Bureau of National Security and Ministry of the Interior did not respond to dozens of letters, emails and calls requesting comment.
As it can take weeks or months for an embassy to check whether a document submitted by a visa applicant is real, most embassies do not attempt to verify everything. Instead, everyone puts on a show. Embassies overzealously scrutinise a handful of applications. Ghana’s police shut down what scams they can. Reporters file sensational pieces. Foreign governments, facing increasing pressure to limit immigration, add ever higher hurdles for legitimate applicants to clear. Everyone gets to say they’re doing something.
But the harder it is for ordinary people to apply for visas successfully, the greater the demand for fraud. While the Americans have been making a show of shutting down a non-existent fake embassy, it’s boom-time for Accra’s visa-fraud industry.
One day this summer, I stopped by the leafy, upscale Cantonments neighbourhood of Accra. There, hidden in plain sight, is a one-stop shop for visa fraud – one of dozens of such places that are scattered across the city. The fraudsters at the office I visited use a Microsoft Word template to churn out fake letters from dozens of different employers. A student visa application, complete with all the documents you’ll need, will cost you 1,000 cedi (£175).
One of the men running the place told me that people needed help jumping through all the hoops. As he spoke, customers picked up their paperwork and headed off to keep their appointments at the huge grey complex in the distance, spread over 12.5 acres of prime Accra real estate.
On the horizon, above the embassy, the American flag was flying.
*Culled from Guardian /Pullitzer Center.org