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St. John Brewers Hosts St. Thomas Location Grand Opening

CHARLOTTE AMALIE — After months of planning, construction and a soft opening, St. John Brewers owners Kevin Chipman and Chirag Vyas invite the business community and general public to enjoy Love City in the heart of St. Thomas at their new location, St. John Brewers on the Waterfront.

The grand opening event will take place the week of June 6-10 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily with deals on drinks and merchandise. The new location can be found at 32 Raadets Gade in downtown Charlotte Amalie next to the St. Thomas Historical Trust.

“Over the years, we have received such amazing support for our brand from the St. Thomas community, and now we are thrilled to have a location here to increase our engagement with residents and guests,” said Chipman.

St. John Brewers Hosts St. Thomas Location Grand Opening
St. John Brewers on the Waterfront associate Kim Smith serves an Island Summer Ale.

The new store on St. Thomas, designed to complement the beautiful 1800s structure it’s housed within, will allow the popular local brewery to share its product with St. Thomians, cruise ship guests and overnight guests staying on St. Thomas. The primary focus of the St. Thomas footprint is to promote St. John Brewers through its delicious craft beer and trendy merchandise.

The store features a bar experience with select draft and canned St. John Brewers beer, Love City Seltzer and alcohol-free options as well as brewery merchandise so guests can sport their favorite St. John Brewers product. St. John Brewers also recently introduced its newest brew, a hazy IPA dubbed Juicy Booty, to St. Thomians.

St. John Brewers Hosts St. Thomas Location Grand Opening
St. John Brewers owners Kevin Chipman (left) and Chirag Vyas (right) enjoy a cold draft beer on the St. Thomas Waterfront.

“We are excited to continue our expansion of our St. John based brewing company to St. Thomas,” said Vyas. “We look forward to sharing our island inspired brews and beverages to our local customers and visitors alike.”

St. John Brewers was established in 2004 and continues to be extremely popular among locals and visiting guests. Following the grand opening of the St. Thomas Waterfront location, owners Vyas and Chipman have several additional ventures on the books. These expansions will not only promote the territory, but contribute to the tourism industry and the local job market and economy.

St. John Brewers is also working to ramp up their Mongoose Junction location on St. John. The Tap Room bar and restaurant, where guests can enjoy the full array of St. John Brewers craft beers on tap, recently saw the addition of a merchandise corner and an arcade room set to open soon.

Despite unexpected hurdles for the company since 2015, owners Vyas and Chipman continue to push their endeavor further and share their love of craft beer. Virgin Islanders can purchase St. John Brewers beer and other beverages at the two St. John Mongoose Junction locations, St. John Brewers on the Waterfront and at dozens of convenience stores, grocery stores and restaurants throughout the territory. Apparel and gifts can be found at these locations and online at stjohnbrewers.com.

St. John Brewers Hosts St. Thomas Location Grand Opening
St. John Brewers on the Waterfront associate Shaelen George shows off the full line of hats at the St. Thomas store.

About St. John Brewers: St. John Brewers is a craft brewery, Tap Room and Brewtique located in Mongoose Junction, Cruz Bay on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Founded in 2004 by Kevin Chipman and Chirag Vyas, the brewery has garnered a loyal following of local craft beer lovers and St. John visitors who return year after year. Bellows International distributes St. John Brewers products throughout the Virgin Islands. To learn more, visit stjohnbrewers.com and follow @stjohnbrewers on Instagram and Facebook.

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Jif Peanut Butter Under Recall For Potential Salmonella Contamination

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are investigating an outbreak of salmonella infections that is possibly linked to Jif peanut butter products.

The J.M. Smucker Company issued a voluntary recall for its creamy, crunchy, natural and reduced fat peanut butter products that were distributed nationwide, with lot code numbers 1274425 to 2140425, the FDA announced this weekend.

Currently, 14 people have reported illnesses and two of those cases have resulted in hospitalizations, according to data provided by the CDC.

“Five out of five people reported consuming peanut butter and four of the five people specifically reported consuming different varieties of Jif brand peanut butter prior to becoming ill,” the FDA said.

What is salmonella?

Salmonella itself is a bacteria, but the illness it causes is known as salmonellosis.

For many infected people, symptoms appear 12 to 72 hours after contact and often include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, according to the FDA. Most people who are infected recover within four to seven days and do not need any treatment.

More serious and severe cases can occur, though, so the FDA recommends contacting your health care provider if you believe you have been infected.

Several varieties of peanut butter are being recalled nationwide

The J. M. Smucker Co. said the peanut butter it is recalling was distributed in retail stores and other outlets throughout the country. It includes creamy, crunchy and natural varieties, along with many others.

The recalled products have lot code numbers between 1274425 – 2140425 and include the numbers 425 for the 5th-7th digits. “425” in that position indicates that it was processed in the Lexington facility.

This information is usually printed on the back label of the jar. A list of recalled products and their numbers can be seen on the FDA’s website.

If you happen to have a jar included in the recall, you should throw it away immediately.

The FDA noted that the peanut butter has a two-year shelf life so consumers should check any Jif peanut butter already in their home.

After throwing the peanut butter out, the CDC recommends washing and sanitizing any surfaces or containers that might have come into contact with the peanut butter.

No word as yet from the local Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs (DLCA) as to whether the affected products were shipped to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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PopPay Platform Expands To Bahamas Government-Backed Digital Currency

For First Time Ever, Consumers Can Use Their Face To Make Purchases With A  Central Bank Digital Currency

NASSAU, The Bahamas — PopID and SunCash announced Thursday that for the first time in history, consumers can now use the PopPay face verification platform to purchase goods and services with a central bank digital currency (CBDC) – digital money issued and backed by a government.

Bahamian consumers can now link their SunCash account to PopPay to enable face pay transactions using their Sand Dollars. They can then spend the digital currency at a network of SunCash merchants using just their face for authentication. Various local and global brands are or will be accepting digital Sand Dollars authenticated by PopPay through the SunCash platform.  

“PopPay’s cutting edge technology provides a more consumer-friendly, seamless, and secure experience for SunCash’s users,” said Desmond Pyfrom, CEO of SunCash. The existing apps for transacting in digital Sand Dollar generally require consumers’ use of smart phones, QR codes, or various other codes to complete a transaction at the point of sale. “With the integration of the PopPay platform into the SunCash App, Bahamian consumers can now quickly, efficiently, and safely use the digital Sand Dollar to purchase food and other products even if the consumer does not have a functional smart phone or an internet connection,” said Pyfrom, as is the case for thousands of Bahamians.

The world is quickly moving towards central bank digital currencies—accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the growth of cryptocurrencies. As of 2022, fourteen countries have launched CBDCs, or are in advanced pilots, and approximately 90 countries, accounting for over ninety percent of global GDP, are considering issuing CBDCs, according to the Atlantic Council.

The Bahamas was the first country to launch a CBDC when it deployed the Sand Dollar nationwide in October 2020. As part of that program, a limited number of supervised financial institutions were authorized to sponsor a mobile payment wallet for the digital dollar of the Bahamas. SunCash was one of the supervised financial institutions approved by the Central Bank of The Bahamas.

“The PopPay platform is designed to allow consumers to link any payment method to their face, including credit cards, debit cards, direct bank transfers, stablecoins, and CBDCs,” said John Miller, CEO of PopID and Chairman of its holding company, Cali Group. “With governments around the world increasingly implementing CBDCs to replace physical cash, PopPay serves the critical policy objective of ensuring that all people can transact with the currency.”

“We applaud SunCash for its deployment of this solution that allows Bahamians to transact in Sand Dollar using only their face,” said John Rolle, Governor of the Central Bank of The Bahamas. “Such security features are important to increasing personal comfort around the use of digital payments and advancing the Central Bank’s goal of increasing financial inclusion among all segments of our society.”

A face pay option is an important feature for any country with the goal of increasing financial inclusion with the adoption of a CBDC, as those that are unbanked, under-banked, or without smartphones or reliable internet tend to be the most vulnerable parts of society.Keith Russell of AD+ECH GLOBAL facilitated the partnership between PopID and SunCash.

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St. Croix Senator Pushes For More Fiscal Accountability At WAPA

CHARLOTTE AMALIE — Senator Kenneth L. “Kenny” Gittens is asking his colleagues to reconsider authorizing an independent investigation of the Virgin Islands Water & Power Authority following Monday’s Committee of the Whole hearing to address ongoing concerns at the utility, to include a problematic November 2021 audit report

“While I do think some positive steps have been taken, to date, no one has been held accountable for the waste, fraud, and abuse at WAPA and we have yet to realize the long-awaited promise of lower electricity bills,” Gittens said. 

During the hearing at the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Hall, Senators learned that WAPA currently owes $2.65 million in employee GERS contributions, including interest and fees. And that the quasi-government authority was behind $4.9 million in employer contributions, with an outstanding loan balance of $361,000 from the suspended Government Employees Retirement System loan program.

“This matter is serious, it’s criminal, hence my request for a special investigator to investigate what is taking place at the authority,” Gittens said. “This matter before us or this discussion as we speak right now is considered criminal and I want to put that on record.”

Senator Gittens, who chairs the Committee on Economic Development & Agriculture has been calling for a hearing on WAPA since last November’s release of a Virgin Islands Inspector General audit detailing more than $113 million in cost overruns on a Virgin Islands Water & Power Authority project promised to reduce energy bills by converting WAPA’s generators from diesel fuel to propane. WAPA officials projected that the fuel conversion, managed by a company known as VITOL, would save ratepayers more than 30 percent on their monthly electricity bills.

The original cost of the project was estimated at $87 million, but through a series of change orders and overruns, the final cost eventually more than doubled. The Senator noted many basic errors in WAPA’s management of the VITOL contract identified in the audit report, including hiring a law firm with a clear conflict of interest, not following basic contract protocols, and not informing the Board about critical decision making for their input and consent. 

“We cannot overstate the importance of WAPA leadership reporting to the body on a regular basis given its track record,” he said. “WAPA impacts every single member of this community, every business, every household. Expensive electricity drives up our cost of living and and hampers our overall economic development.” 

Senator Gittens said when he first moved to subpoena WAPA personnel and documents in 2019, no one knew how badly things actually were at the utility. 

“Much continues to be brought to light, but no one has yet been held accountable – not for the conflicts of interest, not for the selling of equipment, not for the questionable contracts and leases, not for allowing more than $2 million to be sent offshore to the Bank of China, and not for allowing the cost of the propane conversion to swell from $87 million to $200 million. I believe that the VITOL contract audit demonstrates once and for all that we must revisit my legislation to appoint a special investigator to deal with some of these lingering issues.”

 Bill #34-0080, introduced by Senator Gittens in August 2021, calls for the appointment of a Special Investigator with the authority to thoroughly review concerns related to WAPA and to make prosecutorial recommendations to the Virgin Islands Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney.

The investigator would have the power to issue subpoenas for evidence and witnesses and to engage government auditors and personnel as necessary to assist in the inquiry. Senators voted to hold the bill in the Committee on Government Operations & Consumer Protection.
“I am asking that we bring this legislation back to the table,” Senator Gittens said. “It is also critical that we provide more funding to the Office of the Inspector General if we are serious about addressing these issues. I am encouraged by some of the recent changes we see with WAPA’s leadership, but as I previously noted, no one has been held accountable for the millions in losses at WAPA. How do we stop further waste, fraud, and abuse without addressing what has been allowed to take place at WAPA? Why are WAPA officials being moved to other agencies or allowed to resign or retire without any consequence? If we keep allowing these transgressions, we are doomed to to repeat them.”

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GERS Chief Preparing $7.7 Million Lawsuit Against WAPA For Payment Failures

CHARLOTTE AMALIE The Government Employees Retirement System of the Virgin Islands is preparing a lawsuit against the financially-strapped Water and Power Authority for about $7.7 million in past due money.

At issue are past due employees’ and employer’s contributions and employees’ loans as well interest on these sums. WAPA has failed to forward the employee and employer contributions since June 24, according to GERS Administrator Austin Nibbs.

Nibbs told The Bond Buyer on Monday that GERS is preparing to file a lawsuit in the Superior Court in the Virgin Islands.

The GERS head honcho said WAPA owed GERS $2.4 million in employee contributions and $188,000 in interest on this, $4.5 million in employer contributions and $347,000 in interest on this, and $311,000 in employee loan deductions and $8,000 in interest on this.

The GERS board voted Friday to authorize the administrator “to file legal action to collect the outstanding amounts that are owed to the GERS that have been past due since June 24, 2021,” Nibbs added.

GERS had previously raised the issue with new WAPA CEO Andrew Smith, who responded in a letter on March 29, proposing a 36-week payment plan because WAPA doesn’t have the cash to make the full payments.

By ROBERT SLAVIN/The Bond Buyer

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FDA Investigates Lucky Charms Cereal After Reports of Sickness

SILVER SPRING, Maryland — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating Lucky Charms after consumers complained about becoming sick after eating the dry cereal.

The FDA said it received more than 100 complaints this year.

“The FDA takes seriously any reports of possible adulteration of a food that may also cause illnesses or injury,” the agency said in a statement, according to The Associated Press.

Lucky Charms, which is made by the Minneapolis-based General Mills, said it found no link between the cereal and illness.

FDA Investigates Lucky Charms Cereal After Reports of Sickness

“Food safety is our top priority. We take your concerns very seriously. Through our continuing internal investigations, we have not found any evidence of consumer illness linked to the consumption of Lucky Charms. Please send us a DM so that we can gather additional details,” Lucky Charms tweeted on Monday.

The website iwaspoisoned.com said it received more than 3,000 reports of people becoming sick after eating the cereal. People posting on the website said they experienced nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain.

“Starting in late 2021 Lucky Charms food poisoning reports started to trend on iwaspoisoned.com. Now there are reports of over 3,000 sick and the FDA has initiated an investigation. We recommend anyone who fell ill after eating Lucky Charms, to report it, and to keep left over product for testing. We will communicate procedures for testing to everyone who reports their case,” the website said.

General Mills said Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964. The cereal has multicolored oat pieces shaped like bells, fish, clovers, moon marshmallows and other objects. The cereal’s logo and mascot is a Leprechaun and one of his most popular catchphrases is that Lucky Charms are “magically delicious.”

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CUSTOMERS SAY: Liberty Mobile Is The Worst Long Distance Phone Service In The USVI!

CHARLOTTE AMALIE — “It stinks!”

That’s what customers of Liberty Mobile in St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and Water Island think about the San Juan, Puerto Rico-based long distance telephone service.

Liberty Mobile customers have complained about “drop zones” in St. Thomas and St. Croix where in process phone calls are dropped automatically when motoring customers enter a “dead zone” of non reception on St. Thomas and St. Croix.

“Plagued with drop calls and texts from unfamiliar names,” Ellen Lewis of St. Thomas said. “It’s annoying, and I’m talking about Solberg and Scott Free areas.”

“Crappy regular service too,” Maria Robles added.

What’s worse, customers of Liberty Mobile say that they were never told that they had to inform the long distance carrier in writing within one month of sign-up that they intended to take their phone number to another carrier.

In that way, customers who chose to leave Liberty Mobile, but failed to notify them of their intent to keep their phone number — are forbidden by Liberty from taking their assigned phone number to a new long distance carrier after they fire Liberty.

Liberty Mobile customer Steve Kinney on St. Croix posted a meme to the private Facebook group “STX Utility Outage Reporting” on April 7 comparing his cell phone to a rock — because he said the stone had the same connectivity of his Liberty Mobile phone — none at all!

“Actual photo of my iPhone not connecting to the visible Liberty cell tower on the distant ridge line,” Kinney said firmly tongue-in-cheek.

CUSTOMERS SAY: Liberty Mobile Is The Worst Long Distance Phone Service In The USVI!
LIKE A ROCK”: Steve Kinney said cell his phone is as connective as a rock with Puerto Rico’s Liberty Mobile as his long distance carrier in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“I need PR Liberty USVI to hurry and restore power my God my phone is that brick in truth,” Marisol Marie Ventura agreed with Kinney.

Customers of Liberty Mobile, which acquired Broadband VI in 2021, have also experienced inadequate download speeds and at times a complete lack of connectivity. And they will continue to experience these issues until the company completes a laundry list of impending projects hung up in bureaucratic red tape, according to testimony during the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications on Monday.

Bala Balakrishnan, general manager for Liberty Mobile in the Virgin Islands, told committee members that the company has “been trying” to execute a plan which adds nine sites to “cover the gap” in several locations around the territory to include Coral Bay on St. John, Tango and Donoe on St. Thomas, and Sion Farm, Clairmont, Green Cay, East End, West End, and Sally’s Fancy on St. Croix.

But “unfortunately, it has been very difficult and complex to work with the different government and public authorities to lease the necessary location to erect cell sites needed to address the coverage and capacity issues,” Balakrishnan said. “For example, Coral Bay, Fortuna and East End. We are ready to invest in the territory, but we need your support in deploying the network and getting a speedier way to get these leases, and agreements approved and signed.”

Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory, a non-committee member, said there was “no specificity” in the direction the company was going and how long it would take to get there as officials estimated the projects would be complete sometime in 2022 or 2023.

“It sounds like we are going to be suffering with this situation that we have with our mobile services. I’m not hearing from you that you are satisfied, or you are comfortable, or in a position to say we are almost at the winning line, the end of the road with this,” she said. “It sounds like it continues to be a struggle and while we are continuing to have this struggle our service here sucks, it’s horrible.”

CUSTOMERS SAY: Liberty Mobile Is The Worst Long Distance Phone Service In The USVI!
Liberty Mobile hurriedly opened an office in St. Thomas when it realized it was rapidly losing customers in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Officials from the company acknowledged the capacity issues and said the entity is currently testing various areas to see where capacity issues are and where dropped calls are frequent.

While many improvements made by the company aren’t immediately evident to the consumer, Balakrishnan said they do exist. The company’s latest speed tests demonstrate that Liberty is showing improvements of upward of 100 percent on average download speeds, it has deployed 5G mobile speeds in over 60 percent of its sites, completed 19 projects last year, and completed the trenching and preliminary work for Liberty’s fiber deployment project for the mobile service.

“These projects have already produced discernible results,” Balakrishnan said. “Our U.S. Virgin Islands cell sites have improved their available capacity by 78 percent which means download speeds also improved. The end result is a faster, more resilient mobile network that will give Virgin Islanders a better signal, fewer dropped calls, and a faster mobile internet.”

Still, like much of the community, senators were disgruntled by the company’s service, prompting Sen. Marvin Blyden to ask if there was anything that could be done in the interim to alleviate the complete lack of reception in places like Coral Bay.

“One of the things we are trying to do right away is to add capacity. We have identified a preliminary investment that we are reviewing and if we do that it will mitigate some of the dropped calls,” Balakrishnan said.

“The second thing we are trying to do, specifically in areas where you’re not able to get the connection in place, is to see if we can implement small cells,” according to Balakrishnan, but the company is still navigating the regulations and assessing the feasibility of the idea.

Should the company be able to expedite the deployment of the small cell sites, Balakrishnan said it will also help but as he and many of his colleagues pointed out the red tape surrounding lease agreements for such sites has been difficult.

Some sites which Liberty has attempted to procure through the Property and Procurement Department for the use of erecting cell towers have taken nearly two years of negotiation with no solution, according to Sen. Kurt Vialet.

Liberty officials agreed there was a need for legislation and appealed to senators for help in navigating lease agreements to create a swifter process.

Naji Khoury, president and chief executive officer of Liberty Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, said “it might have been a bumpy road getting here but the future is bright and I think we have what it takes.”

In addition to Blyden and Vialet, other members present were Senators Dwayne DeGraff, Janelle Sarauw, and Genevieve Whitaker. Sens. Steven Payne Sr. and Samuel Carrion were absent. Other non-committee members, like Frett-Gregory, also were also present for the hearing.

The Daily News contributed to this report.

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EPA To Begin Inspecting Underground Storage Tanks At Gas Stations On St. Croix Today

FREDERIKSTED — Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) advises all Gas Station owners and/or operators of underground storage tanks that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Region 2, will be conducting underground storage tank (UST) Inspections in the St. Croix District on or about the week of April 11, 2022. 

EPA has authority to conduct UST inspection(s) and to enforce federal UST regulations in accordance with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984 (“HSWA”), 42 U.S.C. § 6901 et seq. (collectively referred to as “RCRA” or the “Act”). Mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, EPA or DPNR is required to inspect all federally regulated UST systems every three years. 

EPA To Begin Inspecting Underground Storage Tanks At Gas Stations On St. Croix Today
Underground storage tank for gasoline

Before the inspections occur, EPA encourages owners and operators of UST systems to review compliance with the Federal UST regulations. This includes ensuring all required documentation is completed and available for review during the inspections. If areas of concern are identified, they must be rectified immediately. EPA’s enforcement staff will review the information gathered during the inspection(s) and, if violations are found, will determine what enforcement actions are necessary.  

Please note that violations of federal UST regulations may result in enforcement actions with penalties of up to $24,730 per UST system per day of violation. Therefore, DPNR and EPA encourages owners and operators of UST systems to take immediate steps to ensure compliance with the federal UST regulations which may be found at 40 C.F.R. Part 280.  

Interested persons may also visit https://www.epa.gov/ust/musts-usts for EPA’s guidance document “Musts for USTs”.  

For more information or questions and concerns, contact Austin Callwood, Director of the Division of Environmental Protection at (340) 774-3320 or by email at austin.callwood@dpnr.vi.gov

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Cuba Struggles To Buy Fuel As Imports From Venezuela Dwindle -Data Indicates

From The Thomson Reuters Trust

HAVANA — Cuba is struggling to cover a fuel deficit as imports from Venezuela and other countries remain below historical levels and global prices boosted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine make purchases almost unaffordable, according to analysts and data.

The Caribbean country, which is dependent on fuel imports mostly from political ally Venezuela to cover more than half of its demand, is since last month dealing with diesel and gasoline shortages leading to long lines in front of stations.

Insufficient fuel imports are another major hurdle for Cuba’s economy, struggling to recover following the coronavirus pandemic and harsher U.S. sanctions imposed by the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has provided Cuba with more than 32,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude since 2019 even amid U.S. sanctions on both countries. But fuel volumes sent to the island have fallen as Venezuela has struggled to produce refined products for its own needs, according to vessel monitoring data.

Cuba imported some 70,000 bpd of crude and fuel in the first quarter of the year, below the about 100,000 bpd the Communist-ruled island typically requires to meet normal demand, tanker monitoring data from Refinitiv Eikon showed.

More than three-quarters of the shipments came from Venezuela, but the OPEC-member nation has sharply cut fuel shipments to Cuba from almost 44,000 bpd in 2020 to 21,000 bpd in 2021 and 22,000 bpd in the first quarter this year, the data and internal documents from state-run oil company PDVSA showed.

Cuba’s information ministry and Venezuela’s PDVSA did not reply to requests for comment.

Cuba Struggles To Buy Fuel As Imports From Venezuela Dwindle -Data Indicates

Before the pandemic, Cuba’s fuel demand reached 137,000 barrels per day of fuel oil, diesel, gasoline, cooking gas and other refined products, according to Cuba’s National Statistics Office.

Even though the nation this year is consuming some 110,000 bpd of fuel, it still needs imports to make up for insufficient domestic production, said Jorge Piñon, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Latin America and Caribbean Energy and Environment Program.

“Cuban refineries are not 100 percent operational. The Havana refinery, the only facility with a catalytic cracker, is running at around 70 percent of capacity, while Cienfuegos is doing sporadic runs of 10,000 bpd and Santiago is not in service,” he said.

Catalytic cracking units are key for motor fuel production.

Diesel demand for power generation in Cuba is growing, Economy Minister Alejandro Gil said last week. Cuba relies in part on small distributed generation plants that tend to consume more diesel than larger centralized facilities.

Since September, Cuba has not received any diesel cargoes from Venezuela, according to the tanker tracking data and internal PDVSA documents, which has forced Cuba to go to the open market for increasingly costly diesel.

The nation exceeded its imports budget by $49 million in the first two months of the year due to high fuel prices, Gil said. “A 40,000-tonne diesel shipment that last month cost $35 million-$36 million, now costs $58 million,” he said.

Cuba’s seven aging thermoelectric plants, which provide 62 percent of the country’s power, are the “Achilles Heel of Cuba’s energy sector,” Pinon said. “Outages due to delayed maintenance to the thermoelectric plants have caught them by surprise in a moment of low diesel inventories. That is causing a domino effect at gas stations.”

Hours-long lines in front of stations were visible in Cuba’s capital Havana in late March as the government began fuel rationing in at least one province.

Venezuela’s diesel provision to Cuba was among the arguments used by Washington to suspend in 2020 the authorizations it had extended for the South American country’s oil-for-fuel swaps with foreign oil producers.

The island’s energy and mining minister, Livan Arronte, said Cuba – which remains under a U.S. embargo limiting free trade with the country – is paying freight tariffs and other costs 20% higher than importers bringing fuel through the same routes.

—REUTERS

Reporting by Marianna Parraga in Houston Editing by Marguerita Choy

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Accounts Deceivable: Email Scam Costliest Type of Cybercrime

“The scammers are extremely well organized and law enforcement is not,” Sherry Williams told The Associated Press.

RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) — A shopping spree in Beverly Hills, a luxury vacation in Mexico, a bank account that jumped from $299.77 to $1.4 million overnight.

From the outside, it looked like Moe and Kateryna Abourched had won the lottery.

But this big payday didn’t come from lucky numbers. Rather, a public school district in Michigan was tricked into wiring its monthly health insurance payment to the bank account of a California nail salon the Abourcheds owned, according to a search warrant application filed by a Secret Service agent in federal court.

The district — and taxpayers — fell victim to an online scam called Business Email Compromise, or BEC for short, police say. The couple deny any wrongdoing and have not been charged with any crimes.

BEC scams are a type of crime where criminals hack into email accounts, pretend to be someone they’re not and fool victims into sending money where it doesn’t belong. These crimes get far less attention than the massive ransomware attacks that have triggered a powerful government response, but BEC scams have been by far the costliest type of cybercrime in the U.S. for years, according to the FBI — siphoning untold billions from the economy as authorities struggle to keep up.

The huge payoffs and low risks associated with BEC scams have attracted criminals worldwide. Some flaunt their ill-gotten riches on social media, posing in pictures next to Ferraris, Bentleys and stacks of cash.

“The scammers are extremely well organized and law enforcement is not,” said Sherry Williams, a director of a San Francisco nonprofit recently hit by a BEC scam.

–Sherry Williams

Losses in the U.S. to BEC scams in 2021 were nearly $2.4 billion, according to a new report by the FBI. That’s a 33 percent increase from 2020 and more than a tenfold increase from just seven years ago.

And experts say many victims never come forward and the FBI’s numbers only show a small fraction of how much money is stolen..

“It’s one of the most lucrative things out there,” said Shalabh Mohan, chief product officer at Area 1 Security.

In the nail salon case involving Grand Rapids, police say $2.8 million was stolen. Banks were able to recall about half that amount once the scam was discovered, court records show.

A Secret Service agent said in an affidavit as part of a search warrant application that someone hacked into the email account of one of the school district’s human resource employees and sent emails that persuaded a colleague in the finance department to change the bank account where the health insurance payments were sent.

The emails were brief and unfailingly polite. “Please kindly update” the records, one of them said — words the real HR employee would later tell police she never uses, according to the affidavit.

Police tracked the money to the salon’s bank account owned by the Abourcheds, the affidavit says. After the theft was detected, Moe Abourched contacted a Grand Rapids police detective and said he’d been fooled by a European woman named “Dora” into accepting the funds and forwarding them to other accounts, according to the affidavit.

The Secret Service agent said Abourched’s claims were false and he’d used a similar ruse with police after he received money from a BEC scam targeting a Florida storage company.

Police put the couple under surveillance and in October searched their apartment, offices and BMW, court records show. Police said earlier this year they needed more time to examine the data in the couple’s phones and computers.

The Abourcheds’ lawyer, Kevin Gres, said his clients have done nothing wrong and no charges should be filed.

“My clients were unwitting victims in this scheme,” he said.

BEC scammers use a variety of techniques to hack into legitimate business email accounts and trick employees to send wire payments or make purchases they shouldn’t. Targeted phishing emails are a common type of attack, but experts say the scammers have been quick to adopt new technologies, like “deep fake” audio generated by artificial intelligence to pretend to be executives at a company and fool subordinates into sending money.

In the case of Williams, the San Francisco nonprofit director, thieves hacked the email account of the organization’s bookkeeper, then inserted themselves into a long email thread, sent messages asking to change the wire payment instructions for a grant recipient, and made off with $650,000.

After she discovered what happened, Williams said, her calls to law enforcement went nowhere.

The FBI told her the local U.S. attorney’s office won’t take her case. She flew to Odessa, Texas, where the bank that initially received the stolen money was located. The money by then was long gone and the local detective was powerless to help. Williams asked her U.S. senators for help and later learned the Secret Service was investigating, but said it hasn’t given her any updates.

Crane Hassold, an expert on BEC scams and former cyber analyst with the FBI, has heard of federal prosecutors declining to take BEC cases unless several million dollars were stolen, a minimum threshold that speaks to how out of control the problem is.

“There’s so many of them they can’t possibly work them all,” said Hassold, now director of threat intelligence at Abnormal Security.

Almost every enterprise is vulnerable to BEC scams, from Fortune 500 companies to small towns. Even the State Department got duped into sending BEC scammers more than $200,000 in grant money meant to help Tunisian farmers, court records show.

The Justice Department has launched months-long operations in recent years that have netted hundreds of arrests worldwide.

“Our message to criminals involved in these types of BEC schemes will remain clear: The FBI’s memory and reach is long and wide-ranging, we will relentlessly pursue you no matter where you may be located,” said Brian Turner, executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch.

But security experts say the wave of arrests has had little impact, and the FBI’s own numbers show that BEC scams continue to grow at a rapid clip.

“You can arrest 100 of the guys and there’s no ripple effect,” said Hassold.

Many of those arrested by U.S. authorities are lower-level “money mules,” who move stolen money around the banking system until it’s out of reach to authorities.

“Mules” don’t need hacking skills and come from a variety of backgrounds. A South Florida man, Alfredo Veloso, pleaded guilty in 2019 after prosecutors say he recruited women he met through his business making “kink pornography” videos to be money mules for BEC and other cyber scams.

Sophisticated BEC scams targeting businesses and other organizations started taking off in the mid-2010s. It was also around that time when ransomware attacks — in which hackers break into networks and encrypt data — started to grow in frequency and severity.

For years both BEC scams and ransomware attacks were treated largely as a law enforcement problem. That’s still true for BEC attacks, but ransomware is now a key national security concern after a series of disruptive attacks on critical infrastructure like the one last year against the biggest fuels pipeline in the U.S. that led to gas shortages along the East Coast.

The National Security Agency’s hackers have taken action to disrupt ransomware operators’ networks. The Justice Department set up a ransomware task force to better organize the law enforcement response. And U.S. President Joe Biden has pressed the issue directly with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, where many ransomware operators are located.

Nothing close to those efforts has been deployed against BEC fraud despite the huge financial losses.

“It’s a bunch of tiny little silos, and they still haven’t figured out a way to have just a single source that goes after these things,” said John Wilson, a threat researcher at the cybersecurity firm Agari.

If the U.S. were to launch a whole-of-government response to BEC fraud, it almost certainly would focus heavily on Nigeria.

Nowhere are BEC fraudsters more active than in Africa’s most populous nation, where scammers have able to operate almost unchecked for decades. The well-worn Nigerian Prince scam may now be a global punchline, but a new generation is making fortunes through sophisticated BEC fraud.

BEC scammers from Nigeria are glorified in pop songs and show off their wealth on Instagram and Facebook, posing with expensive cars or piles of money.

Ramon Abbas, a well-known social Nigerian media influencer who went by Ray Hushpuppi, had more than 2 million followers on Instagram before he was arrested in Dubai. Abbas’ social media posts showed him living a life of total luxury, complete with private jets, ultra-expensive cars and high-end clothes and watches.

“I hope someday I will be inspiring more young people to join me on this path,” read one Instagram post by Abbas, who pleaded guilty in the U.S. to international money laundering related to BEC and other cybercrimes last year. His sentencing is currently set for July.

Pete Renals, a threat researcher at Palo Alto’s Unit 42, said tech-savvy Nigerian criminals started learning how to use available malware to steal victims’ credentials around 2014. As the software changed, the scammers changed too. In 2018, he said, researchers started seeing Nigerian malware being developed in-country by the BEC scammers themselves.

“It does not seem like there’s a whole lot slowing them down,” he said. They see “no reason to stop.”

Obinwanne Okeke was one of Nigeria’s best known young entrepreneurs when he was a featured panelist at an event hosted by the prestigious London School of Economics.

“If it’s not born in you to take up challenges, you cannot do it,” Okeke said at the 2018 event when discussing his entrepreneurial drive.

But just days before he made those comments, Okeke had been busy sending fake invoices and defrauding the British sales office of the heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar out of $11 million through a BEC scam, according to the FBI. He was arrested at Dulles Airport outside Washington in 2019, pleaded guilty to wire fraud a year later and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.

BEC scammers arrested by police in Nigeria often have better luck and win back their freedom by paying fines or bribes, experts say. Adedeji Oyenuga, a sociology professor at Lagos State University who has studied cybercrime culture, said there’s little fear by BEC scammers of being punished if caught.

“The person will walk around the streets freely knowing nobody is going to say anything about what he or she is doing,” Oyenuga said.

In the Hushpuppi case, U.S. prosecutors have also charged Abba Kyari, a top Nigerian law enforcement official who prosecutors say falsely imprisoned one of Abbas’ criminal rivals. Kyari remains in Nigeria, where media reports say he’s been arrested on a separate charges related to alleged drug smuggling.

Doug Witschi, an assistant director at the global police organization Interpol, said tech companies that help facilitate BEC crimes need to be more active in stopping such behavior.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this challenge,” he said.

Unlike ransomware operators who try to keep their communications private, BEC scammers often openly exchange services, share tips or show off their wealth on social media platforms like Facebook and Telegram.

A Facebook group called Wire Wire.com, which was until recently available to anyone with a Facebook account, acted as a message board for people to offer BEC-related services and other cybercrimes.

The page, which had a profile picture of a duffle bag filled with cash, was created in 2015 and had more than 1,400 members. It was taken down shortly after The Associated Press asked Facebook about it last month. The company declined comment.

In the case of the stolen Grand Rapids money, it was social media that helped law enforcement when seeking a federal judge’s approval for a search warrant.

Included in the application was a vacation Instagram post by Kateryna Abourched, which linked the timing of her trip with a $3,503 payment to a luxury resort in Mexico made from the bank account that had received the stolen Grand Rapids money.

“Vacation is always inspiring,” she wrote in her Instagram post.

By ALAN SUDERMAN/The Associated Press