A man believed to be the fugitive John Ruffo, co-perpetrator of one of the biggest bank frauds in U.S. history, surfaced this month in Duncan, Okla., according to local bank officials, and he was apparently up to his old tricks.

Mr. Ruffo, 46, is believed to have visited several community banks in Duncan attempting to open an account so he could receive $250 million of wire transfers from Nigeria, said Ronnie Ward, Duncan's chief of police.

Neither Mr. Ward nor Rob Hoss of the U.S. Marshals Service would reveal the names of the banks. Mr. Hoss, however, said the tip was the first information they had received concerning Mr. Ruffo since November 1998, when he failed to report to a federal prison in New Jersey to begin serving a 17-year sentence for bank fraud.

Mr. Ward said all the banks refused to help the man, who identified himself as John Ruffo. About a week later, a teller at one of them recognized a picture of Mr. Ruffo on a "wanted" poster circulated by the Marshals Service. Mr. Hoss said the Marshals Service is still trying to "firm up" the teller's account.

"I'm holding my breath until we can confirm something," he said in an interview Monday.

In March 1996 Mr. Ruffo was convicted of 160 counts of bank fraud. He and a partner, Edward Reiners, approached a number of banking companies, including Signet Bankshares of Richmond, Va., and NationsBank Inc. (now Bank of America Corp.) in Charlotte, N.C., posing as employees of Philip Morris Cos. According to press accounts of the case, they succeeded in obtaining $350 million of loans, which Mr. Ruffo reportedly said were to go toward the purchase of computers for a top-secret cigarette research project.

Mr. Reiners is serving a 17-year prison sentence.

Mr. Ward said he did not understand the mechanics of the scheme the New York-born Mr. Ruffo purportedly tried to carry out in Duncan, but all the bankers remarked on his "strong East Coast accent."

"Around here, that kind of thing sticks out like a sore thumb," said Toni Hopper, a reporter following the story for The Duncan Banner.

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