ACCRA, Ghana (AP) — A fake U.S. embassy that operated for "about a decade" in Ghana's capital issuing counterfeit and fraudulently obtained visas has been shut down, the U.S. State Department announced.
The scam was orchestrated by "Ghanaian and Turkish organized crime rings" and a Ghanaian attorney, a statement said. Several suspects have been arrested, though others remain at large.
Raids led to the recovery of 150 passports from 10 countries and visas from the U.S., India, South Africa and the European Schengen zone.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said no one was able to enter the United States illegally using a counterfeit visa obtained at the fake embassy.
"This was a criminal, fraud operation masquerading as a fake U.S. embassy," he told reporters.
It was not clear how many people were defrauded by the fake embassy, which charged $6,000 for its services.
Those running the operation were able to bribe corrupt officials "to look the other way," the State Department said. Ghanaian officials said Monday they were still collecting information and were not prepared to comment.
"This is a shocker," said one Ghanaian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists about the case.
Toner said the fraudsters obtained Ghanaian and other passports with expired U.S. visas that were either lost or stolen. Using them as a prototype, they then produced counterfeit visas.
But, as Toner stressed, "It's very, very hard to counterfeit U.S. visas these days," including numerous security features such as biometric information to prevent fakes from being used.
To the best of the State Department's knowledge, he said, no one had even been caught at the U.S. border attempting to enter the country with such a document.
"Frankly, the counterfeit visas were pretty poor quality," he said, claiming that people who obtained them must have realized they weren't going to be able to use them to get into the U.S.
The State Department learned of the fraud operation earlier this year, he said. Ghana acted on information that the U.S. provided.
Those involved in the scheme would drive "to the most remote parts of West Africa" to find visa applicants and transport them to Accra, the State Department said. They also used fliers and billboards to lure victims from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo.
Victims would be taken for appointments at the fake embassy, which featured an American flag and photo of President Barack Obama. The fake consular officers were Turkish.
The scheme also used satellite locations including a dress shop. An industrial sewing machine is suspected to have been used to bind fake passports.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Washington and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, contributed to this report.