Estonian folk music centre defrauded of €53,000 in a scam originated in Nigeria

A fraud that started in Nigeria resulted in the Estonian Traditional Music Centre, the organiser of the Viljandi Folk Music Festival, losing €53,000, and after a four and a half month investigation, the Estonian Prosecutor’s Office stated there was nothing to be done – the money has moved to countries where it is impossible for the Estonian police and legal system to bring it back from.

The Estonian Traditional Music Centre is one of the hundreds of victims from whom online fraudsters have managed to extract thousands of euros and who have no serious hope of getting this money back, the Viljandi-based local newspaper, Sakala, writes.

According to the prosecutor’s office, money was taken from the Traditional Music Centre twice with one fake e-mail address. It is known that the Gmail address containing the name of the centre’s manager, Tarmo Noormaa, was created in Nigeria. However, this address was logged into within a short period of time from nine IP addresses from Nigeria, Thailand and the United States.

On 14 February, an e-mail was sent from this address to the centre’s accountant with a request to transfer €28,000 to a foreign account. The e-mail, written in short sentences, contained the name of the bank, an account number and an explanation of the transaction. The money was supposed to go to someone named Santos. Tarmo Noormaa recalled that no expense documents were included in the e-mail.

The accountant made the transfer without asking any questions. Noormaa explained in retrospect that, by doing this, the accountant violated the procedure agreed at the centre that no transfer is made without an expense document. All invoices had to be approved by the manager in the digital environment before being sent for payment and then the accountant could make a bank transfer.

The Viljandi Folk Festival in 2021. Photo by Thom Brown.

The tracks lead to Africa, Thailand and the US

Another four days passed and another e-mail came from the same fake Gmail address. This time, the fraudster using the name of Tarmo Noormaa asked for a transfer of €25,000. This sum was transferred as well.

The scam was then discovered. On 22 February, the centre terminated the employment contract with the accountant due to a loss of trust and changed the procedure for approving bank transactions. The accountant now enters payment orders, but cannot make transfers. Only the manager has the right to make them. In addition, all employees completed cyber security training.

In order to defraud money from the Traditional Music Centre, the scammers had to do a lot of preliminary work. They had to know the manager’s name and the accountant’s contact information as well as give the accountant the impression that everything looked real.

“I suppose all this information is public in the commercial register,” Kauri Sinkevicius, a public relations adviser at the prosecutor’s office, said.

The police interrogated all people involved in the fraud case of the Traditional Music Centre in Estonia. The accountant was deemed a witness. The tracks led to Africa, Thailand and even the United States, but all of them eventually dissipated, and on 30 June, the prosecutor’s office concluded the proceedings.

The prosecutor’s office established that the e-mail address used in the fraud is linked to a smartphone, which in turn is linked to seven Gmail addresses. Six of them were created in Nigeria and were linked to various phone numbers with Nigerian area codes. The e-mail addresses were logged in from different parts of Nigeria and in one case from the US. However, one e-mail address was created in Thailand.

Tarmo Noormaa. A screenshot from a video.
Tarmo Noormaa. A screenshot from a video.

A very painful loss

“Unfortunately, it was not possible to identify the person who committed the fraud based on this information,” district prosecutor Marja-Liina Talimaa said.

Therefore, the prosecutor’s office gave the police permission to close the criminal proceedings. Should new evidence or circumstances emerge, the criminal proceedings will be renewed and continued.

Noormaa admitted the loss of €53,000 euros was very painful for the centre, both psychologically and financially.

“The last few years have been really difficult,” Noormaa said. “The education ministry stopped supporting us in 2019 and the state’s subsidies decreased significantly. On top of that, there was the coronavirus crisis, when we were forced to lay off two-thirds of our staff.”

According to credit information, the centre’s result for 2021 was €120,000 with an operating budget of €1.4 million, but the year before it was in a loss of a few tens of thousands of euros.

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