We’ve covered how wire transfer fraud scams are executed using fake executive emails and vendor invoices, but one of the most effective varieties remains to be covered. Scammers will impersonate lawyers to play on both the fear or trust people have for lawyers. This variety of scam is particularly relevant to Houstonians, as ABA Journal reported earlier this year a scam involving a fake law office website targeted the Houston area with the promise of providing estate planning services.
Scammers, like in this recent case in Houston, will set up a website for a fake law firm. They copy lawyers’ pictures and bios from various legitimate law office sites, along with any general information about the law firm that will help the fraudulent site pass as legitimate. The fraudsters will change the attorneys’ and firms’ names and call it their own. The result is a fake law firm website that will pass as legitimate to the vast majority of people. From here the scam typically proceeds in one of two ways, one choice being passive while the other more common approach is an active campaign.
Passively Swindling the Unassuming
The website set up by the scammers is legitimate in that it can be searched and found on search engines. Depending on how detailed the website is, it may appear on certain keyword searches, especially if the site lists a location and describes a particular area of law the fake firm focuses on. These sites will usually contain a section with contact information, allowing unassuming victims to contact the scammers and request legal help. The scammers will promise legal services in return for an initial fee which must be wired before meeting with the client and taking on the case.
The scammers will take the money but cut-off communication with the victim. If the victim attempts emailing or calling they will likely not receive a response, and the office address, if listed on the site, will not be valid so visiting the firm to demand service or a refund is impossible. The email and phone may be discontinued shortly after being scammed, and any identity they were tied to was likely an alias, causing identifying those responsible for the scam to be difficult.
Active Campaigns by Fake Firms
Active campaigns by fake firms involve sending out mass mail and email campaigns to vulnerable targets. The messages usually regard sensitive topics, such as inheritance suits, accident compensation, or estate planning services. By adding language that pressures the recipient to act fast, many targets will react and provide their bank account information without fully evaluating the letter. The fake lawyer mail scam in Houston over the summer targeted the elderly, under the guise of offering estate planning services. The scammers called their firm Walsh & Padilla, and had a detailed website that including stolen photos and bios of actual lawyers.
The letters informed the elderly targets they would be receiving life insurance proceeds if they supplied their bank account numbers and basic financial details. Elderly people are notorious targets for scams such as these, as they are considered trusting and potentially lack specific technical knowledge that would allow them to realize the amount of information requested is both unnecessary and suspicious. In the case of the Walsh & Padilla wire fraud scam, the website was determined to be operated from South Africa. The Houston Bar Association filed suit to shut down the fake law firm website and filed a criminal complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s office. This case, like many wire fraud transfer scams that utilize fake lawyer information, is currently at a standstill and the scammers may go unpunished.
How to Avoid Falling Victim
The general principles of avoiding any scam apply to this particular variety as well. Scam Detector recommends you never pay for legal services over the phone or online, especially if you have met with the lawyer or the lawyer asks for payment in advance. While some legitimate legal practices do request advance payments, you should request to visit the firm first to verify their legitimacy. Fake law offices will not have a staffed office you are allowed to enter, so if the lawyers you are in contact with do not want you to visit their office, they may be scamming you. Another simple way to check their legitimacy, as recommended by FindLaw, is by checking with your state bar. Any fully licensed lawyer will appear from a simple search on the bar association website.
Scammers will use real photos of lawyers for their sites, but will rarely use their actual names as well, meaning the name of the lawyer on the fake website will likely not belong to a licensed lawyer. A simple google search for a lawyer’s name should show they are currently employed at just one firm. If you search for your lawyer and they are currently associated with multiple firms, their identity is potentially being stolen for a wire transfer scam. It is best to check with both a simple internet search and a search through the state bar, as a lawyer’s name on a scam site should not be able to pass both tests.
If you have been the victim of a compromise scam, call McCann Investigations at (800) 713-7670. We will provide a free consultation and outline the steps you and your response team need to take to gather and maintain the evidence you need to pursue litigation or an insurance claim. We can also explain the critical use of an licensed investigator to perform the forensic investigation and provide an objective opinion on the origination and scope of the compromise scam.