Keeping your practice safe from Internet check scams is getting harder and harder these days, as scammers get increasingly sophisticated. Lately there has been a rash of email check scams targeted to attorneys’ inboxes. Have you seen one of these scams in action?
What an Email Check Scam Looks Like
The scams usually start with one or perhaps two emails to the attorney. One email may be from purportedly a “local” referring attorney, whose address may be from another state. The second email is from a company president, usually from out of the local area or state, or even international. The email requests assistance in a debt recovery case from a local “company.”
Frequently, the lawyer is advised that the debtor will be making some sort of partial payment of their debt to the “client” by sending a certified or other official-looking check directly to the attorney’s office.
The “client” often assures the lawyer that there are legitimate reasons for the delay in recovery, and that any payment made by the debtor is a good faith attempt to resolve the dispute prior to litigation. The email also reminds the lawyer that should their office receive payment as promised by the debtor, the attorney advance fee deposit will be paid from the monies provided.
When the attorney receives that check, they are instructed to immediately send the payment in the form of a law firm check, wire transfer, or similar to the “client.” The check received from the debtor will look authentic and will be cleverly watermarked and/or trademarked.
What to Do
- Do not deposit the check or follow the instructions received with it. The check you deposit will bounce. The check the attorney writes from her own account, or the funds the attorney wires, will clear before the attorney is notified about the fraudulent check and likely before the attorney can stop payment on their own check.
- Do not respond to emails that cannot be verified, even from so-called referring attorneys (who allegedly cannot handle the matter because they are “going in for heart surgery”, etc.).
- Do not provide financial account information via email. Scammers have been known to use even this level of communication to steal financial identities.
- Contact the businesses involved by using legitimate phone numbers or verify the requests through a legitimate third-party source. Contact the debtor company to verify that it actually has a business relationship with your “client.”
- Even if these precautions are taken, never take action until an attorney/client representation agreement has been thoroughly discussed and executed. Do not commence representation steps until an advance fee deposit has been received and the deposit has been cleared and verified by your financial information.
- Review Washington Ethics Advisory Opinion 2229, which addresses your professional responsibilities under Rules of Professional Conduct 1.6, 1.7, and 1.16 concerning volunteering this information to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.