Colorado Supreme Court
Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel
Promoting Professionalism. Protecting the Public.
Follow these six steps to protect yourself from the latest scam targeting attorneys.
By APRIL M. McMURREY
Most of us are familiar with the "Nigerian scam"— a Nigerian official promises significant sums of money if only the email recipient can provide a small sum of cash immediately. Even if the content is not a giveaway, usually the grammatical errors alert the reader, and most people avoid the trap.
However, in a new and more sophisticated scam targeting attorneys, the red flags are subtle, if they exist at all, and detecting the fraud is not so simple.
The scheme looks like this: A legitimate closing is scheduled for the sale of property. An email hacker breaks into the email account of someone involved in the closing, such as the seller’s closing agent or attorney. The hacker communicates with the law firm or closing agent handling the transaction. The hacker purports to be the seller of the property or the seller’s real estate agent. The hacker provides instructions to wire the proceeds of the sale directly to their bank account. Because the hacker has assumed the identity of the seller/agent, when the email recipient writes back with questions (attempting to verify the authenticity of the instructions), the hacker again intercepts the email and responds. The funds are wired to the hacker’s account, and once the fraud is discovered, the funds are already gone.
Because the funds are nearly impossible to recover once the wire is complete, preventing this fraud is key. Attorneys in Virginia, North Carolina, and New Hampshire have already reported this conduct. Colorado lawyers are urged to take the following steps:
1. Do not use email to confirm closing instructions; rather, confirm instructions via letter or fax.
2. If email instructions are provided, call the client or sending party to confirm the instructions. Do not rely on a call from the “seller.” In at least one instance, a law firm had in place two-level confirmation to protect against such fraud, but because the hackers emailed and called with the “new” instructions, the firm adhered to the hacker’s instructions.
3. Do not use telephone numbers that were “recently” provided; rather, contact the seller/sending party via the original telephone number provided.
4. Review computer security frequently, including email security for all employees; and when appropriate, implement new technology and policies to ensure against vulnerabilities. For more information regarding security, see recent OARC Update articles “11 Tips To Safeguard Clients’ Digital Information,” “Padlock Your Email,” and “Password Protection 101.”
5. Review wiring procedures and analyze where the firm may be vulnerable.
6. Verify how your carrier may interpret this conduct. When the legitimate seller demands “repayment,” there may be a claim. Even if the carrier makes payment, the insured will likely still have the deductible expense.
To report concerns regarding fraudulent conduct, contact the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel at (303) 457-5800 or the Colorado Attorney General’s Office at www.stopfraudcolorado.gov.
April M. McMurrey is an attorney in the intake division in the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel.