Scams Targeting Lawyers Get Sophisticated

Better grammar, specific details and names of real businesses have helped fraudsters con some Colorado attorneys.

By JAMES CARLSON

Fall 2013

Earlier this year, a small Denver firm received an email requesting help in a commercial debt dispute. The email was supposedly from an executive at a United Kingdom-based home improvement store that was attempting to recover more than $1 million from a Lowe’s located in Lakewood. The executive said he had made a 50-percent down payment on goods that were never delivered. Now he wanted legal assistance.

The email turned out to be one of a growing number of bad check scams targeting lawyers across the country this year. The Denver firm didn’t bite. But other Colorado attorneys haven’t been so lucky with similar schemes.

That might be because scam artists have honed their tactics in recent years. Their emails use better grammar, list phone numbers that are staffed by live people and utilize the names of real people at real businesses. And they often include supporting documentation that bolster the air of authenticity.

These are the new Nigerian scams, and they’re aimed directly at attorneys. Protecting yourself, however, requires the same old tactics as with any client soliciting your services — due diligence, and a lot of it.

These bad-check scammers are now targeting real-estate, business, litigation and family law practitioners. The language might differ across fields, but the process plays out the same. A person in a foreign country presents a legal matter requiring a lawyer’s assistance. The person then sends a fake cashier’s check for the attorney to deposit in a trust account. Almost immediately following the deposit, the supposed client emails again stating that he or she has resolved the issue with the opposing party. He or she then asks for the deposited funds to be wire transferred back to another account. As an incentive, the supposed client offers for the attorney to retain a generous portion for services rendered.

It all goes down before the attorney or the bank realize the check was actually fraudulent. In the wake, attorneys are often left with overdrawn trust accounts.

The scammers might sound easy enough to detect, but they have refined their approach recently. They often include details that add to the supposed legitimacy. Because of that, many Colorado attorneys have fallen victim in recent years.

The emailer from the UK referenced above, for instance, was purportedly an executive with J&A Mcdougalls, which is a real home improvement company in the UK. (The real store doesn’t have an “s” at the end of its name.) It listed a Lowe’s store and address that actually exists in Lakewood. And the emailer went so far as to include a fake email exchange between the executive and the Lowe’s store and a fraudulent contract, on which the UK company was supposedly trying to recover.

In another example in August, a Denver attorney received an email supposedly from a UK-based physician looking to buy a home in the United States. The email asked for legal help with title work on that purchase. Again, the emailer donned the identity of a real doctor in the UK and said he was referred by a Denver realtor who actually exists.

The key to protecting yourself is due diligence. Look up the company or person purportedly sending the email. Call any number you can find and ask questions. And the cliché remains true: If it’s too good to be true … well, you know.

For more information on the types of scams and red flags to watch for, the website LawPro has developed a useful fact sheet.

James Carlson is the Information Resources Coordinator for the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. If you have an idea for or a comment about the OARC Update, contact him at j.carlson@csc.state.co.us.