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Law Prof Says He Was Duped by Nigerian Scam

January 7, 2005

By The Associated Press

A University of Miami law professor says he's an innocent dupe in a complicated Internet scheme that allegedly resulted in $1.68 million being stolen from a major truck leasing company by scam artists in Nigeria.

Pennsylvania-based Penske Truck Leasing claims in a lawsuit against Fleet bank and a credit union that Professor Enrique Fernandez-Barros, 73, obtained the "stolen" and "altered" check and helped steal the money from the company. He is not being sued and no criminal charges have been filed.

According to the federal suit filed last week, a $1.68 million check Penske mailed Freightliner in December 2003 to buy tractor-trailers never made it to the truck manufacturer's bank account. Another Penske check for $1.68 million, apparently counterfeit, was sent via FedEx to Fernandez-Barros' home. It was made out to him.

Fernandez-Barros said he had received an unsolicited e-mail from someone supposedly with the Nigerian government asking him to do some legal work, primarily reviewing public works contracts and helping a Nigerian businessman receive $1.68 million from Penske for a stock sale. He would be paid $200,000 when the businessman received the Penske money.

The professor, who holds three doctorates, says that when the check arrived, he followed the Nigerians' instructions to deposit it in his account at University Credit Union, an independent firm that serves University of Miami employees and students. He says he then wire transferred the entire $1.68 million to the Nigerian government, the businessman and two of the businessman's associates in Maryland.

"I never altered the check, I never knew I was cashing an altered check, and I never took the money," Fernandez-Barros told The Miami Herald. "I'm 100 percent innocent. I've been used."

He says he was never paid.

The trucking company -- owned by auto-racing team owner Roger Penske -- is suing its own bank, Fleet, and University Credit Union, saying they should have prevented the theft. The company also says Fleet -- which has since been merged into Bank of America -- didn't reimburse its loss and would not go after the credit union to recoup its money.

The trucking company refused comment Thursday beyond the suit.

"I can't really comment on the issue because there is an ongoing investigation," said Louise Moyer, Penske's corporate communications manager.

The credit union says it did nothing wrong.

It "processed that check in the way it was supposed to process that check," said Michael Lozoff, the credit union's attorney. "They received three separate verifications ... They relied on Fleet."

Shirley Norton, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, refused comment Thursday.

Fernandez-Barros blames the Nigerian government.

"They put me in the middle of this whole mess," Fernandez-Barros said. "They used me like a chess piece to steal the Penske money."

Telephone calls to the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C., were not immediately returned Thursday.

The U.S. Secret Service is conducting a criminal investigation into the case, which has been referred to the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami.

Telephone calls to the U.S. Attorney's office were not immediately returned.