This article originally appeared on VICE News.
World counterfeiters, take note: A crime ring in Ghana may have just raised the bar for audacious forgeries.
Not content with only producing bogus documents, the criminals were busted running an entire fake U.S. embassy—replete with U.S. flag and photographs of the president—for more than a decade.
The U.S. Department of State says the sham embassy, housed in a run-down building in the capital Accra, was run by members of Ghanaian and Turkish crime rings, and aided by a Ghanaian immigration lawyer. The fake embassy staff were actually Turkish nationals who spoke English and Dutch.
The dilapidated building—a far cry from the actual U.S. embassy in the city—was at the heart of an elaborate scheme that targeted victims across Ghana and neighboring Togo and Cote d'Ivoire, the State Department said.
The fraudsters would lure victims through fliers and billboards, bussing them in from remote locations and putting them up at a nearby hotel, before selling them bogus documents for $6,000. The documents included fraudulently obtained but legitimate U.S. visas, as well as fakes, along with ID papers such as education degrees and birth certificates.
The con artists paid off corrupt officials to secure blank documents, and to generally look the other way. Unbelievably, for a decade at least, it appears to have worked.
That is, the State Department says, until U.S. embassy staff investigating a wider problem of document fraud in the region received a tip-off about the fake embassy during the course of a separate investigation.
The informant also told them about a fake Dutch embassy in Ghana. Daphne Kerremans, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Ghanaian authorities and their partners were still investigating that claim. "We have to wait and see," she said.
The raid on the sham U.S. embassy and two other locations, carried out this summer in cooperation with Ghanaian police and international partners, resulted in several arrests and the seizure of 150 passports from 10 countries and well as fake and legitimate U.S., Schengen, Indian and South African visas.
But the criminals had one final trick up their sleeves. The attorney involved in the con told Ghanaian detectives that they were not allowed to access one of the targeted premises as it was involved in another court case. This lie bought enough time for corrupt officials to bail members of the crime ring, allow them to relocate the document factory and ship many of the bogus documents out of the country, according to the State Department.
Arrest warrants have been issued for the suspects still at large, and U.S. authorities did not say how many people may have entered the country using such documents.
Despite the embarrassing getaway, the State Department is hailing the success of anti-fraud investigations in West Africa, saying they have resulted in a 70 percent reduction in the export of bogus documents in the region.