By Gary Blankenship
The Web site advertises it as “A Different Kind of Law Firm.”
Is it ever.
A few months ago, the entity using the Web address of www.gandsattorneys.com called itself the Gendreau and Seachrist law firm. Next it went by the name of Goodman and Schooper.
The physical address for Gendreau and Seachrist was a hospital, the prestigious Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville. Goodman and Schooper occupy a nonexistent address on the south side of that city, although it still used the hospital’s ZIP code.
Both firms listed several lawyers as members, apparently using information from member pages on The Florida Bar’s Web site. None of the lawyers had addresses in Jacksonville. For that matter, when contacted by the Bar, none of the members knew they were being listed as part of the firms. The Web site also features pictures of each member. The photos are not of the lawyers listed.
The answer may be discerned from this statement on the “Our Focus” page of the Web site: “Goodman & Schooper “Goodman & Schooper is also properly registered to privide (sic) information and finalize any procedures regarding sweepstakes claims.” (The same statement, complete with misspelling, was used by Gendreau and Seachrist.)
If the promise to help someone with sweepstake claims strikes you as bogus, well, that’s because both firms are just that — fake.
The Web site is part of the recent problem in which scam artists impersonate real lawyers to gain credibility. In this case, the site promoters attempt to get money by convincing people they have won sweepstakes, but need to pay various fees to collect the prizes. It’s a high-tech enhancement of a scheme that has popped up across Florida recently (See story in the October 1 Bar News.)
The Bar became aware of the site because potential victims called the Attorney/Client Assistance Program. Those calls in turn generated an investigation by the Bar’s Unlicensed Practice of Law Department, and the site also was reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Both of those probes, however, have ended without any action. (The site, however, apparently was shut down by its operators as this News went to press.)
“The information that we have gotten back so far indicates that the suspect(s) is in Costa Rica or some other location outside of the U.S.,” said FDLE Special Agent John McDonald. “Also, to my knowledge, there have not been any victims in Florida who have lost any money. For those reasons, there are really no further leads for FDLE to follow up on at this point. A federal agency would have to pursue any leads that extend outside of the U.S.”
He said an Ohio victim of the Web site sponsors has approached the FBI, but an agent he spoke with said the person’s complaint doesn’t meet the agency’s criteria to open an investigation.
Bar UPL Counsel Lori Holcomb said the scammers’ method of operation is to work outside the country, while claiming to be a Florida law firm, and then contact only potential victims in other states.
“There’s probably another firm that is advertising out of state and targeting Florida,” she said, adding that con artists mostly target seniors.
In one case, an out-of-state elderly woman lost $28,000, and in another, a woman, after contacting the Bar, prevented her daughter from sending the scammers $8,000, Holcomb said.
The Bar is contacting all of the real lawyers listed as members of the fake firms.
“The attorneys we spoke to were happy that we told them and very miffed that it happened,” she said, adding that most of those listed as members of the fake firms did not have phone numbers listed with the Bar.
Holcomb said the scammers apparently did that to prevent victims from directly contacting the real lawyer. While some of the impersonated attorneys asked what the Bar could do, Holcomb said there is little that can be done to prevent someone from obtaining public information and impersonating an attorney.
There’s no way for the Bar, when a potential client calls the Bar to confirm that a lawyer is a member, to tell whether the caller is checking on a legitimate attorney or whether they have been contacted by a con artist posing as a real lawyer — unless the caller provides additional information, she said.
As for consumers, Holcomb gives straightforward advice: “Attorneys are not allowed to solicit, and if someone calls you and says they’re an attorney, then one of two things is happening: One, they are not an attorney or, two, they are an unethical attorney and do you really want to go with them?”
Holcomb called the 800 number provided on the scam Web site and, “They basically laughed at me.” The person on the other end of the phone did acknowledge the site was run from outside the country, Holcomb added. It remains in operation.
Several calls from the Bar News to that number went unanswered.
Elizabeth White, a partner with the Jacksonville firm of Shepherd White Thomas & Kachergus, said her firm got a call from a Maryland man inquiring about a new lawyer, hired just after he joined the Bar.
It turned out that a scammer had pretended to be the new member, gave the Maryland man his Bar number, and referred him both to the scam Web site and to the Bar. The intended victim got the lawyer’s real phone number from the Bar and contacted White’s firm, which ended the deception.
Here is how the scam works.
“He [the imposter] called somebody in Maryland and said, ‘You are a sweepstakes winner and you’ve won $100,000, but in order to insure that money, you need to send us $3,000,’” White said.
The scammer gave the Maryland man both the fake Web site address and the new associate’s name and Bar number. Fortunately the associate has listed Shepherd White’s phone number with the Bar, which led the intended victim to the real lawyer. When White’s secretary called the toll-free number provided to the intended victim, the call was answered by someone claiming to be at Lloyds of London. The intended victim was also given the online address of an apparently fake sweepstakes company to bolster the scam.
“We very quickly picked up that it was a scam,” said White, adding the real lawyer, although blameless, was shaken up. “You can imagine, you’ve practiced law for less than a month and all of this suddenly comes down on you.”
After hearing details about the fake site and the scams, White said it appears that the con artists are targeting new Bar members, trying to take advantage of the time between when new lawyers are admitted to the Bar and the time they’re set up in their practices, when they may be harder to contact.
“We need to emphasize to the young lawyers that you need to get your information to the Bar as quickly as possible, because that window of time [after joining the Bar] is what they use to perpetrate their crime,” she said.
One statement on the gandsattorneys.com Web site shows that lawyers’ identities aren’t the only things filched by the scammers. One sentance reads: “Goodman & Schooper shut down large coal mines because of road damage from coal haulage and Neely & Callaghan has forced coal companies to compensate families living near coal mines for road deterioration, annoyance, inconvenience, and property damage.” There is no explanation of the identity of Neely & Callaghan, nor any other mention of it on the site.
A Google search shows that Neely & Callaghan is a West Virginia firm, and most of the text of the scam Web site was lifted verbatim from Neely & Callaghan’s site. The quoted statement above appears word-for-word on the Neely & Callaghan site except that the first reference is to Neely & Callaghan, not Goodman and Schooper. The purloined text includes all of the Neely & Callaghan practice areas — except, of course, the added sweepstakes claims for Goodman and Schooper.
Partner Michael O. Callaghan said the firm was unaware, until contacted by the Bar News, that much of its Web site had been pirated by the fake firm.
“We’re unhappy,” said Callaghan, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former chair of the state Democratic party, adding he would check further and ascertain what recourse, if any, the firm has. Callaghan’s partner, Richard Neely, is a former chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals — the state’s highest court — as well as a former state legislator.
A perusal of the Goodman and Schooper site shows several other things that might alert a careful observer. For example, one part of the site proclaims the firm is “Proud of our Heritage of Service Since 1975.” Yet according to the provided bios of the firm members, none was a member of the Bar before 1992; indeed, five of the nine listed members joined the Bar in 2007 or 2008.
Although the fake firm has renamed itself, there was still at least one use of the former name, Gendreau and Seacrist, on the site, as this News went to press. The firm also advertises itself as “AV rated by Martindale Hubbell a” (sic). And while the firm calls itself Goodman and Schooper, its bio page lists the correct spelling of the second partner’s name as “Schopper.”