Virtually every morning now, in my email inbox, is a letter from a person that I do not know inquiring as to whether I will represent them. Sometimes the emails seem plainly bogus; other times, it is not so obvious. It is astonishing that there are numerous hucksters trolling the internet whose purpose appears to be to scam lawyers. One would think that lawyers would be one of the least likely targets for this type of activity. However, if you are a lawyer, you should think again – – you have become a target of internet scammers. Let me give you an example of correspondence I recently received which I determined to be bogus:
I wish to file a contempt Petition against my ex-spouse for failure to make court ordered payments in child support, spousal support, equitable distribution and medical support. Please advise if you handle such a case.
Most often these letters/emails will come from people who claim to be in China or Japan with return addresses reflecting same. The letters will explain that, because of the time difference, it would be difficult to contact them by phone and, as a result, the sender would prefer to communicate by email. Often the letters come accompanied with a teaser with respect to the amount owed and offering a contingent fee for collection of sums in excess of $1,000,000. A common theme is the caveat that the case is close to being settled and all the sender really needs is a lawyer to send a demand letter . Naturally, the lawyer will be entitled to a substantial fee for handling the file. One rule of thumb to follow in law and in life – if something seems too good to be true, it generally is.
More often than not, these unsolicited emails are a scam the purpose of which is to defraud the lawyer out of substantial sums of money. While there are several variations of this scam, there are several characteristics common to most of them. First, the lawyer signs and sends an engagement letter to the author of the email and requests a retainer. Almost always the prospective “client” will sign the letter but not send the funds. Before the ink on the retainer agreement is dry, a check will arrive in the lawyer’s office from the prospective defendant made payable to the law firm’s trust account usually for a substantial sum to “settle” the case which has obviously not yet been filed. My advice is to recognize these scams for what they are and, whatever you do, don’t deposit the check.
There are myriad reasons not to deposit the check. First, some banks will spot a bogus check immediately; others will not. Bankers are people too and can be easily fooled. There are several cases in which a bogus check is deposited into a law firm trust account and the bank has actually verified that the check is supported by collectible funds. In at least one instance that I am aware of, the bank has wired transferred the “settlement funds” to the alleged “plaintiff” who is actually the scammer. When the bank realizes that the check is no good they often contact the lawyer seeking reimbursement. There may be insurance coverage to cover a lawyer for this type of scam but the best practice is to avoid it altogether. See http://www.insidecounsel.com/2013/03/21/law-firm-that-was-victimized-by-check-scam-is-enti?t=litigation&page=2.
There are more artful ways of running the same scam using phony wire transfers and things of that nature but the point is the same. The scammer gets the money, the lawyer gets stuck holding the bag.
If you receive these emails on a daily basis, as I do, you have to ask yourself the question of whether you are obligated to respond to them. My answer is yes. The problem with these emails is that the one time that you fail to respond will be the time that the prospective client will be real and claim that you were actually his or her lawyer and that you failed to timely respond. Then there is the possibility that this person will file a Bar complaint against you. Accordingly, the emails discussed above create a special problem.
Generally, it is easier than you think to form an attorney-client relationship. In fact, you can form an attorney-client relationship with practically anyone even in the absence of a retainer agreement or retainer funds. If you sit in a bar with a friend discussing a legal matter, and you dispense legal advice during the course of the conversation, your friend may be able to come back and claim that you were his or her lawyer. No engagement letter or exchange of funds are required. Thus, when you receive a solicitation email like the one referenced above, it is in your interest to respond and advise that either you do not handle such cases or you do not accept solicitations from clients who are not referred by known sources. Keep a record of your responses in case the internet scammer turns out to be real.
If you find a lead that comes through email to be genuine, do some due diligence on it. For example, insist on a telephone call. Make efforts to verify the existence of the company through public data bases or on Google. Confirm the existence of an alleged debt with opposing party and, most of all, be careful with your trust account because that is where the problem will likely arise.
For a time, I was beginning to believe that I was the most popular American lawyer in Japan since a different Japanese woman appeared to be emailing me each and every morning requesting my services in order to recover sums from delinquent ex-husbands. Where do they get my name? I have really no idea but I suspect that it comes, in part, from this blog or our firm’s website.
Some Florida lawyer will be taken in by this scam this year. You should just make sure that you make every effort to ensure that it is not you.