TAMPA — A Tampa man has agreed to admit he participated in a scheme that stole millions nationwide, partly by targeting law firms.
Muhammad Naji, 33, has signed an agreement to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries up to 20 years in federal prison. He is scheduled to enter his plea next month.
According to court documents, Naji participated in a scam like one that has plagued law firms around the country for years. The American Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association have warned law firms about the scheme in which thieves send emails to law firms posing as parties in a contract dispute. The scammers send worthless checks to the firms with instructions to deposit the checks, subtract the firms’ fees and wire the rest to the other side in the dispute.
By the time the firms realize the check is no good, the money has been wired to the scammers, who disappear.
In the case involving Najji, the participants in the scheme would send emails to law firms asking for legal representation in a fictitious legal dispute. Conspirators would play both sides of the legal dispute, according to Naji’s plea agreement.
They would send the firm a letter demanding to be paid the full amount of money owed in the supposed dispute. The other side would send a forged, certified check, with instructions to wire the funds to a bank account after deducting retainer fees.
As part of the scheme, Naji opened accounts or had others open them at Bank of America. Naji’s role in the scheme was to “rapidly move the proceeds through multiple bank accounts, making detection or recovery of the fraud or its perpetrators virtually impossible,” his plea agreement says.
As soon as the funds were wired to his accounts at Bank of America, he would quickly move them to other accounts, many in China, Hong Kong, Canada and other places.
Last year, Naji opened about 38 fraudulent accounts at Bank of America alone, with an estimated loss of more than $2.5 million, the plea agreement says.
After his arrest in January, Naji told investigators he wired money to a coconspirator named Melvin in Canada. He said he’d never met Melvin in person and had conducted all business with him over the phone and through the mail.
A criminal complaint affidavit filed by the FBI in January describes some of the specific scams, including one that targeted a law firm in Columbus, Georgia, which was contacted by someone claiming to be Joe Leinenger, president of a company called Triple J Tool, which was owed nearly $200,000 by Lee’s Tool and Die in Columbus. “Leinenger” later contacted the firm and said Lee’s had agreed to begin paying the debt.
The firm later received in the mail a letter purporting to be from Ronald Lee, president of the tool and die company saying a check for $98,750 was enclosed as partial payment for the debt. The letter had been mailed from Canada. The firm deposited the check into its trust account and emailed “Leinenger,” who sent information about wiring the funds to a Triple J account after deducting a $2,500 retainer.
The firm wired $96,250 from its trust account into a Bank of America account held in the name of a woman investigators later determined was Naji’s girlfriend.
Later that day, the lawyer became uneasy and contacted Ronald Lee, the real owner of Lee’s Tool and Die. Lee told the lawyer his company didn’t owe any money to Triple J and he didn’t know anything about the supposed debt.
The lawyer then tried to call Leinenger using the phone number in the emails but reached what seemed to be an answering service for a doctor’s office. The lawyer sent an email to Leinenger saying there had been a problem with the check and asking that the funds be returned to the law firm. The lawyer never heard from Leinenger again.
The next day, more than $54,000 was transferred from the Bank of America account to a bank in Hong Kong.