Berkeley Law firm out $2.1 million in Nigerian Type eMail
BY DAVID ASHENFELTER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
He introduced himself as Dr. Mbuso Nelson.
He said he was an official with the Ministry of Mining in Pretoria, South Africa.
And he offered to pay a $4.5-million fee to a 59-year-old Rochester Hills woman if she would help him transfer $18 million from South Africa to a bank account in the United States.
Mike Wendland: Despite warnings, Americans continue to lose millions to Nigerian con artists But what Ann Marie Poet did next gave new meaning to the so-called Nigerian scam letter fraud, the FBI said.
The FBI said Poet, a bookkeeper for a small Berkley law firm, embezzled $2.1 million from the firm's accounts between February and August, after scam organizers persuaded her to wire huge amounts of money to bank accounts in South Africa and Taiwan to expedite the transfer of money to the United States.
"It's unbelievable that she fell for this," said FBI Special Agent James Hoppe, who is
investigating the case. "She was gullible -- gullible and had access to $2.1 million."
Poet was indicted this week by a federal grand jury in Detroit on 13 counts of wire fraud. Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If she's convicted, she'll likely face three years in prison, federal officials said.
Poet was advised of the charges during an initial appearance before a federal magistrate in Detroit on Friday. She came to court alone and left without comment.
Hoppe said the perpetrators of the fraud contacted Poet by fax in January and promised her that all she had to do to get her $4.5-million fee was to open a bank account.
After she agreed to help, Hoppe said, the scammers told Poet the money was on its way.
But as inevitably happens, Hoppe said, they later told Poet there were problems -- fees,
commissions and taxes that had to be paid.
In the months that followed, Hoppe said, Poet wired amounts ranging from $9,400 to $360,000 to offshore accounts. She never received her fee.
The alleged scam ended Sept. 4, when the Olsman Mueller & James law firm was told that a $36,000 settlement check to a client had bounced.
Jules Olsman, president of the firm, said he contacted the firm's bank to find out what happened., he said, he called the FBI and eventually found out what Poet had
done. Hoppe said she drained all of the firm's accounts.
"This is just absolutely beyond description," Olsman said Friday, noting that Poet had worked for the firm for nine years and often scrutinized expenditures she deemed questionable by other employees. He said Poet, who quit coming to work after Sept. 4, is married and is very active in her church.
But as angry as he is with Poet, Olsman said, he's even more annoyed with Bank One. He said a manager at a Southfield branch, whom Poet befriended, approved all of the wire transfers even though Poet was not authorized at the bank to make such transfers.
Bank officials declined to discuss the specifics Friday.
"We don't comment on customer relationships," said Bank One spokeswoman Mary Kay Bean. "All businesses need to have the right accounting and financial controls, and we urge our customers to be diligent about checking their balances."
Olsman's lawyer, Mayer Morganroth of Southfield, said the forms the bank used to make the transfers clearly indicated that the manager should have called the law firm to verify the transfers.
Olsman said his insurance won't cover the loss, but that he plans to make good on the losses: "Not one client of our law firm will be out one penny."
He also said he plans to sue the bank.
Hoppe said there's no evidence the bank manager was in on the scam. He also said there's little hope of recovering the money or arresting the culprits.
The Nigerian scam letter scheme has been around since the mid-1980s and originated there.
People usually are approached through letters, faxes and, more recently, e-mail. Every month, hundreds of Americans fall victim to versions of the scam, federal authorities say.
In some cases, victims lured abroad to complete the transaction are kidnapped for ransom. The U.S. State Department has attributed 15 kidnappings or killings to the fraud.
Hoppe said people need to use common sense when they receive such offers.
"Nobody is going to call someone they don't know and offer to pay millions of dollars to help transfer money to the United States unless they're up to no good," Hoppe said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Gorland said the law firm is the victim -- not Poet.
"You can't use somebody else's money to follow one of these get-rich schemes," she said.
"If you use your own money, the worst thing you will be is a fool."
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