Lawyers: beware. Like everyone else, we must always be on alert for potential scams. Those of us with websites, on social media, or listed in the yellow pages will almost certainly be contacted by a scammer. Why am I so sure? Because I’ve seen these things in my inbox, more than once.
Like a Nigerian Prince—or a Spanish Prisoner
Advance-fee scams are now so common that they’ve inspired jokes, as “Nigerian Prince”scams. But scams carried out through the mail date back to Spanish civil wars from 200 years ago. For more info on advance-fee scams, see fraud.org’s page on fake check scams; take a look at this New Yorker article for a profile of one scam; at knowyourmeme for info and pictures; or at imgur for one person’s humorous back-and-forth with a certain scammer.
Don’t Fall Victim
But lawyers know better, right? We rely on our ability to get at the truth, whether in a negotiation, at a deposition, or when assessing a new client and the prospects for their case or transaction. At least, we like to think so, but scams are aimed at attorneys, such as a debt-collection scam (see the California Bar Journal article, or the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of Illinois). Attorneys have been scammed: 80 of them altogether once, from an indictment in 2010. The scams will keep coming, and they will mutate.
The Fake “Transaction”
I’ve been receiving debt-collection scams as well as purchase or sale transaction scams. A fake client contacts me for help with a transaction, usually with signs that this is a scam and not a legitimate prospect: misspellings, strange phrases like “Purchase transactions and agreements,” asking for my “contact number” (note to scammers: it’s on the “contact me” page that you used to write to me, and everywhere else on my website), or sending identical messages again and again. Here are a few messages I’ve received:
“I write to request for an attorney to help me draft a Sale and Purchase Agreement. Schedule a time to discuss details if you can help. Yours Faithfully, Maarten Vandervalk”
“My company is sueing its client over a breach of contract. If you handle such case please don\’t hesitate to confirm the receipt of this mail. Warmest Regards, Emmett McAuley”
“I need a lawyer to help me with drafting a sale contract. Respond for more details if you are able to help. Gerhard Dingler”
“Dear Attorney, I will like to inquire if your firm handles Purchase transactions and agreements. A referral will be welcomed if this is not your area of practice and also provide me with your contact number and time of availability. Regards, Ken Yao”
“We are disposing assets and will like your office to prepare a Sales agreement. I would like to know requirements and details you will need if you take on matters like this. Dennis Foster”
To satisfy my curiosity, I wrote back to one of these contacts to ask what they wanted done (with, of course, a disclaimer that the message didn’t create an attorney-client relationship). The response was swift: I got an email back, and within a week, I received a check for $480,000. That’s right: $480,000 U.S. dollars.
At that point, I knew it was a scam. I didn’t write back or deposit the check.
Verifying it is A Scam
The check looked fairly genuine—some scammers use genuine checks and alter them. The purported client claimed to be Sing Tao Publishing Ltd., a Hong Kong publishing company, which wanted me to deposit the check and take my fee out of it, and give the rest to their local affiliate (a printing company near Boston) to use to acquire another company. Of course, we hadn’t discussed what my fee was, let alone talked about the project or signed an Engagement Agreement, so this sounded fishy.
The local affiliate has a website, and I verified that it exists, at the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s website, but that proves nothing. Scammers can name a real, and innocent, company as the purported target of the acquisition, or as the purported seller of assets. Note that I’m providing the name given by the scammer, but not the local company which might be an innocent party in this scam. If Sing Tao Publishing is a real company, innocent of this scam, then scammers are abusing Sing Tao’s name, and Sing Tao should know about it.
Then I examined the check. It appeared to be from a Royal Bank of Canada account, and was drawn from RBC’s location in Iqaluit, Nunavut. An odd place, I thought, for a Hong Kong publisher to have an account! I looked for RBC’s page on check fraud (that is, “cheque fraud”), and sure enough, they warn: “A fraudulent person may pose as an interested buyer, pay for the goods with a cheque that’s substantially greater than the asking price, and then call you to request that you return the overpayment.” No kidding!
Second, the addresses on the check seemed odd. The address of the RBC branch on the check says:
NU X0A 0H0
On RBC’s website, it is:
Igluvut Building #922
Iqaluit, NU, X0A 0H0
I reviewed Canada Post’s guidelines, and saw that the address formatting is a bit off for both RBC’s address in Iqaluit and the address of Sing Tao’s “local affiliate.” That clinched it: fake check, from a scammer.
Other details about the check and the letter seemed off, though some seemed like they could be genuine; I’ve included pictures of both, physically redacted, so you can see them too. There are watermark and microprinting security features on the front and back of the check, which makes me think it is an altered genuine check, or one printed on a very high resolution printer. But the signatures look like printed reproductions. The wording of the letter suggested an odd sense of urgency, for a client that hasn’t signed an agreement with me to do anything. Also, the letter came from a new person, with another email address, and wasn’t addressed to me—odd, as they had my contact info for the check. I didn’t write back.
How to Deal with a Prospect Who May be a Scammer
First, use your judgment: does it sound too good to be true? If so, it probably is. Next, what is the prospect asking for? If they are looking for services that you don’t describe on your website or other marketing materials, the likelihood that it is a scam goes up. Then, are they trying to set up a relationship before you’ve even written back to speak with them? That seems suspect, too. And of course, don’t deposit the check! Anyone who deposits a fraudulent check is responsible for the funds. Plus, if you deposit one check from a client (and this is not from a client) that has both your fee and client trust funds, you may have already violated your state’s ethical rules on trust accounting.
Searching online, I found that PracticePro and this site listing scam contacts, among other, have blogged about similar scam messages. The scammers I’ve heard from have probably contacted other attorneys. I hope that by listing them here, others will not fall for their scams.
And as for the $480,000 check? I’m framing it, and it’s going up on the wall of my office.