-- A fake U.S. embassy in the Ghanaian capital of Accra has been issuing counterfeit U.S. visas and false identification documents for about a decade, according to the U.S. State Department.
A recent online story released by the State Department's Diplomatic Security public affairs office detailed how this fake embassy's long criminal history finally ended this past summer when the Regional Security Office, in co-operation with Ghanaian authorities, shut down the operation.
The article began circulating widely over the weekend and a State Department official confirmed the report today. Department officials insist that -- to their knowledge -- no one who obtained a counterfeit visa was able to enter the U.S.
The building that housed the fake embassy flew the American flag three days of the week and featured a photo of President Obama inside. Flyers and billboards in Ghana and neighboring Cote d'Ivoire and Togo advertised their fraudulent services for the cost of $6,000.
An investigation found that the operation was run by Ghanaian and Turkish organized crime rings, as well as a Ghanaian attorney practicing immigration and criminal law. The State Department said Turkish citizens who spoke English and Dutch posed as "consular officers."
They paid off corrupt officials when suspicions arose over their illegal activities. Those corrupt officials also provided real bank documents so they could be altered by the criminals.
An informant tipped off the Regional Security Office that a fake U.S. embassy and a fake Netherlands embassy were operating in Accra. At the time, diplomatic security agents were looking into a separate fraud investigation under "Operation Spartan Vanguard," which works to address trafficking and fraud plaguing the U.S. embassy in Ghana and the region more broadly.
"The investigation identified the main architects of the criminal operation, and two satellite locations (a dress shop and an apartment building) used for operations," the State Department article said. "The fake embassy did not accept walk-in visa appointments; instead, they drove to the most remote parts of West Africa to find customers. They would shuttle the customers to Accra, and rent them a room at a hotel nearby. The Ghanaian organized crime ring would shuttle the victims to and from the fake embassies. Locating the document vendor within the group led investigators to uncover the satellite locations and key players."
A series of raids led to the arrest of several suspects and collected evidence that included a laptop, cell phones, 150 passports from 10 countries, legitimate and counterfeit visas, and counterfeit identity documents.
The Ghanaian police plan to pursue the arrest of several other suspects still at large, including the Turkish organized crime group, according to the State Department article.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said during today's news briefing that the department was not aware of anyone who attempted to use the counterfeit visas to gain entry into the U.S.
Toner elaborated on how the criminals were able to produce fraudulent documents, saying they obtained a handful of real Ghanaian and foreign passports that were either lost, stolen or sold. Fewer than ten of those contained expired U.S. visas, which the criminals then used as models for counterfeit U.S. visas.
"The visas in question were not stolen from the U.S. embassy," he said.
Toner emphasized the difficulty in producing counterfeit U.S. visas, calling them a "highly secured document" with numerous security features.
As a result of the fake U.S. embassy raid in Accra, as well as other raids identified through Operation Spartan Vanguard, the export of fraudulent documents has decreased by 70 percent in West Africa, according to the State Department article. They views these types of operations as essential to stopping these criminal networks who produce passport and visa fraud, adding, "This is only the beginning."