OSB Professional Liability Fund

Evolving Scams: Don't Let Your Guard Down

January 11, 2019
by Rachel Edwards

When it comes to scams, never let your guard down. Even though you may feel like you can recognize the red flags, the scammers are constantly evolving and creating more sophisticated scams as we catch on to their more obvious ploys.

Below are two examples of recent scams to be aware of:

Fake law firms

Recently in Alberta, Canada, scammers created a fake law firm in an attempt to offer legal services. In this type of scenario, scammers create a fake website and send fake retainer agreements and engagement letters to potential clients, seeking payment of a retainer and release of confidential personal and financial information as part of a fraudulent discovery request. Often, these websites are created using real attorney names, photos, and bios stolen from legitimate law firms. Not only are these types of firms targeting potential clients, they also send inquiries to other attorneys asking for legal assistance for their “client,” such as collecting a debt in a different jurisdiction.

Creative potential “clients”

Closer to home, a lawyer in Salem recently received an inquiry from someone posing as a potential client with an elaborate backstory seeking help for wrongful termination. After receiving an inquiry from this potential client via his web portal, the attorney asked for additional information. He then received a long email describing the circumstances, including specific dates of employment and termination, and detailing purported sexual advances made against him by his employer. He also attached several fake documents, all referencing and using the logo of an actual company with an office located in Salem, including an employment agreement, termination letter, severance agreement, and email thread between the scammer and the employer. He claimed the company promised him a severance check a few months prior but hadn’t yet provided it. It wasn’t until the Salem attorney Googled the potential client’s name that he realized it was a scam. Another attorney in Missouri had filed a lawsuit on the scammer’s behalf in federal court against the same company. The scammer had been trolling the country with the same story.

Here is how the scam works. According to the attorney in Missouri, who realized it was a scam soon after filing the suit in federal court, this scammer sends all of the documents to the attorney asking that the attorney file a breach of contract action. He then says he has to go out of town. While out of town, the scammer sends the attorney the severance check purporting to be from the employer in response to the filing of the lawsuit. The attorney deposits the check into his or her trust account. The scammer then quickly returns and asks the attorney to send him his severance money minus the attorney fees. The “severance” check then bounces.

Evolving scams

These types of scams are not a new phenomenon, but they continue to evolve and improve. Scammers are now using more elaborate backstories and fake websites and documents. The term “catfishing” arguably applies to these types of scams. Catfishing is now part of the Urban Dictionary and refers to a type of deceptive activity in which scammers fabricate an identity and/or documentation and target a victim for various reasons, such as financial gain. With easy access to pictures, names, contact information, and company logos, it has become fairly easy for scammers to use this type of deception.

Do your due diligence and investigate to determine legitimacy before taking on a new matter. Consider the following when screening potential clients:
  • Be cautious with potential clients who refuse or claim to be unable to communicate by any means other than a website portal or email.
  • Be wary of a long period of time between the date of the “incident” and when the potential client contacts you. This implies that the scammer has been using the same story in an attempt to scam others but hasn’t bothered to change the timeline of events.
  • Independently verify information. Don’t rely just on the information provided to you from the potential client. Contact involved parties directly using contact information you have found through independent inquiry. A quick Google search of the potential client’s name or the names of involved parties can often provide a significant amount of information. If you are being contacted by an attorney, look up the attorney in the local bar directory and use that contact information instead of what is provided to you.
  • Analyze all documents and emails received from potential clients for possible fabrication. Below are some red flags to look out for:
    • Spacing between names and the comma after it. This implies a scammer is creating batch documents or emails.
    • Brackets around specific information in documents, such as the state, involved party names, and contact information. This implies that a scammer is using a template.
    • Email threads missing signature lines and logos. Companies especially would be likely to use a formal signature line containing their company logo.
    • The appearance of information that has been copied and pasted. Look for different fonts and bold words within a document, as well as low resolution images, such as a company logo. This implies that the scammer is using a template but then copying and pasting information from a website or a document found online.
    • Poor grammar and spelling. This is especially telling if you are receiving information from someone purporting to be a lawyer or a business.
  • Be cautious if the potential client wants you to move quickly. Lawyers are busy and often cave into pressure from clients requesting that you deposit money or file legal documents immediately. Hold your ground and do your due diligence before taking on a case.

Conclusion

Scammers will continue to evolve and work to improve their attempts at fraud. Educate yourself about the evolution of these scams and how to spot the red flags. But remember that your instinct goes a long way – if you feel that something isn’t right, trust it.

Resources

  1. Determine whether you are dealing with a known scam:
    1. The Federal Trade Commission
    2. USA.gov 
  2. Reporting fraud:
    1. The Federal Bureau of Investigation 
      1. File a complaint with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) if you become aware of an Internet scam.
    2. The Oregon Department of Justice 
    3. The United States Department of Justice 
    4. The National Fraud Information Center