Internet scams that are perpetrated against lawyers are on the rise–and have been for some time. The efficiency of search engines ensures that an attorney’s contact information can be found with ease. This pretty much guarantees that every attorney has been or will soon be contacted by a con artist.
It is not only the frequency of fraudulent attorney contacts that is alarming to members of the bar, but also the shifting nature and design of the scams that are being seen. Scams targeting lawyers must work, because there is no indication that the rate of attempted scams on lawyers is slowing. Check your inbox for proof.
This is a serious issue that must be addressed regularly. The consequences that an attorney may face if they fall victim to an internet scam may include professional responsibility, economic loss, humiliation, and stress.
Due to the ethical duty of confidentiality that an attorney owes to a “client” and given that attorneys deal in financial matters, they are prime targets for would-be scammers.
Types of Scams
The most rampant form of scams that target lawyers comes from international email solicitations. Common examples include proposals for help with enforcement of property settlements, enforcement of divorce decrees, debt collection, and even tort claims. The scams usually involve two common elements: check deposit and immediate wire transfer.
Although many attorneys recognize the appearance of a typical scam email, some attorneys do not understand how the scam works. A collection scam is said to operate like this: an attorney receives an email solicitation from a foreign “client” that asks them to collect money from a defendant who is a resident of the attorney’s state. “Client” signs a retainer. “Client” then informs attorney that the prospect of litigation caused the debtor to want to pay up. Attorney receives a settlement check that appears authentic and deposits it in their client trust account. “Client” tells attorney to immediately wire transfer payment minus attorney fee from the trust account. Attorney complies. Attorney later finds out the check that he deposited was fake. The client trust account is missing money. Bank holds the attorney responsible for the missing funds. Attorney is left holding the bag.
Scammers can make such attempts many times over and cumulatively can gain sizeable profits.
Email solicitation is impersonal, fast, and inexpensive, and therefore provides scammers with a decent cover from which they can send voluminous attempts to unsuspecting attorneys. Fortunately, attorneys function with a healthy dose of skepticism, and so most attorneys who receive dishonest email attempts know to put them where they belong—in the trash.
Scammers know this and they now seem to be employing a work-around. Enter the direct phone solicitation. That’s right, international scam artists will call you and pitch the same type of scams that attorneys are used to receiving in their inbox. Scam artists are smart enough to leverage the higher amount of trust that is generally attached to a phone contact. So, even if a scam against a lawyer originates in an email, the web of the scam may include participants who will field your call should you perform a background check on the person or company that contacted you by email.
A Pennsylvania personal injury attorney who was targeted by an email scam made a great point , “In hindsight it sounds like you’re stupid if you got trapped, but while you’re in it, it’s very sophisticated.”
You can avoid becoming a victim of these nefarious schemes if you trust your instincts and maintain awareness that scams targeting attorneys exist and they will continue to evolve. It is important to stick to your policies when dealing with a prospective client. You are the attorney and legal services are your domain. When you are solicited for legal assistance, make sure the tail never gets the opportunity to wag the dog. Be patient and perform necessary background checks and if you sense that the “client” is uncomfortable with your chosen pace, realize that is a warning sign.
It would seem that in the case of the settlement-check-cashing schemes, the duped attorneys could have avoided being swindled by including language in the retainer that would have required the deposited check to clear before any money would be wire transferred to the “client.”
Hindsight is 20/20, though, and it is the legal community’s responsibility to be vigilant in their protective methods to avoid the perils of scams targeting attorneys. The scams will likely continue and they will take on new forms.