Every Monday, Tuesday and Friday for the past decade, a pink building in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, flew an American flag from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Inside, a portrait of President Barack Obama hung on the wall, and people claiming to be consulate workers speaking English sold visas to the U.S., India and other countries to rural Ghanaians for $6,000 apiece.
It was all a fraud, a scheme of organized crime rings and a Ghanaian lawyer to defraud people of tens of thousands of dollars, according to the U.S. State Department, which recently raided and shut down the fake embassy. And it wasn’t just the U.S. There was also a fake Dutch embassy being run as well.
The U.S. does have a real embassy in Accra, and a standard tourism visa costs $160, according to the U.S. Department of State’s website.
But Ghanaian and Turkish crime syndicates were able to keep their fraudulent business going for so long by bribing corrupt local officials and doctoring bank statements, according to the State Department. They also specifically targeted people who lived in rural areas of Africa who would be easier to fool.
“They would shuttle the customers to Accra, and rent them a room at a hotel nearby,” the State Department said. “The Ghanaian organized crime ring would shuttle the victims to and from the fake embassies.”
The crime rings provided both illegally obtained but official visas as well as counterfeits, and police also seized fraudulent passports when they raided the fake embassy, according to The Ghanaian Times. Ghanaian police also seized fake rubber stamps and identification papers, the Times reports.
During the raid, police were told a dress shop suspected as serving as a front for binding fake passports could not be entered because it was at the center of a court case. The State Department later announced that the court case was a lie made up by corrupt officials in order to buy time and transfer materials out of the shop.
Three men were arrested during the initial summer raid, and warrants are out for several more, the State Department said.
The U.S. discovered the fake embassy as part of a larger effort, titled “Operation Spartan Vanguard,” dedicated to combating “trafficking and fraud” in the region, per the State Department.