Fraud Alert: Con artists targeting lawyers with sophisticated scams

On March 2, the State Bar received a call from Houston lawyer Richard Merrill, who was targeted by an elaborate variation on an email scam that has targeted lawyers for some time. The email scams usually involve overseas criminals pushing bogus debt collection matters - if the scam succeeds, the targeted attorney deposits a fake cashier's check in trust and then disburses funds before the check clears (and is on the hook for the money).

Instead of email, Merrill was contacted directly by a Houston realtor who thought she was helping a London-based doctor buy a house in Houston. In fact she was dealing with a scam artist who had stolen the doctor's identity. Merrill offered his services and ultimately received a bogus cashier's check as a down payment for the house. Luckily for Merrill, his bank identified the check as fraudulent before it was deposited. Read Merrill's full account here.

The State Bar also heard from a Dallas firm which was listed in the return address field on about 300 bogus checks for $3,000 to $4,000 mailed from Fort Worth by scammers who asked their victims to send $500 in order for their checks to clear. The Bar also heard from a Dallas firm whose identity was stolen as part of a payday loan scam in which the scammer purported to be from the firm and attempting to collect a debt.

Attorneys should be extra-vigilant for scams of this type, and never issue a check from a trust account until deposited funds have been collected. Matters involving bank fraud are investigated by the Secret Service. If you are targeted, contact an office in your area.

For detailed information on the problem, see this article by State Bar ethics attorney Ellen Pitluk, which previously ran in shorter form in the Texas Bar Journal

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Roberto Rondero de Mosier - September 6, 2011 9:08 AM

I recently received the following e-mail from which I was advised was a con waiting to happen. In case you come across something similar, don't be fooled...

"Dear Counsel,

My name is Ms Jane Adam. I was married to my ex-husband Davidson Adam (who lives in your jurisdiction) for 23 years. In July 2009, We mutually agreed under a Collaborative Participation Law Agreement to go our separate ways. Davidson Adam had agreed to pay me $935,000.00 under terms of the agreement so that I can settle down. To his credit, he has paid me $114,000.00 but with an outstanding balance of $821,000.00. I am hereby seeking your legal assistance in collecting the balance or help me enforce the agreement and have him honor the agreement in it entirety. I will be providing further information upon your request. I believe that one of the reasons he has refused to pay is because I have re-married.

I understand that being remarried does not automatically void the agreement. Prior to our separation due to irreconcilable differences, we were married for 23 years of which by his instruction, I was a full time housewife to look after our four children. Please get back to me if this is a case you can undertake. Let me know if you require consultation fee before you advice or look at the evidence. I am hereby seeking your firm's assistance in collecting the balance of $821,000.00 from him. He has agreed already to pay me the balance but it is my belief that a Law firm like yours is needed to help me collect the balance payment from my ex-husband Davidson Adam or embark on litigation over this matter if he fails to pay as promised.
Ms Jane Adam."

Kimberly King - June 20, 2011 10:06 AM

I've read several great articles, including this one, that warn attorneys of these types of scams. However, I have not been able to find any guidance on how to deal with the initial inquiry (often via email) from suspected scam artists. I fear that responding only confirms your email address is valid and could lead to more trouble later.

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