By Gary Blankenship
Typically, it involves a new Bar member who hasn’t listed a phone number or e-mail address with the Bar. But sometimes it is a more brazen scheme that involves a veteran or even high-profile Florida lawyer — even Attorney General Bill McCollum.
The problem is scam artists pretending to be lawyers to boost credibility with their intended victims. Most of the schemes involve the fake “lawyer” contacting a Florida resident and telling him or her they have won a lottery or sweepstakes, frequently based in another country, and then trying to get them to pay for insurance, transfer fees, courier costs, or other imaginary expenses. But some involve real estate deals or other scams; the incident where the con artist used McCollum’s name involved a fraudulent wire transfer.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson Kristen Perezluha said the victim of the fraud lives in Bradenton and the matter is being investigated by the agency’s Sarasota office.
The Bar learns about such scams when the victims contact the Bar’s Attorney-Client Assistant Program seeking to file a grievance against the “attorney” they think took their money or when a victim or attorney contacts the Bar’s Unlicensed Practice of Law Department.
Bar staff working for ACAP, which screens all grievance inquiries, say the victims usually don’t realize the con artist wasn’t an attorney until they contact the Bar and the Bar gets in touch with the real attorney.
The Bar News reported last year that the Unlicensed Practice of Law Department had opened a handful of investigations involving attorney impersonations. Since then, ACAP attorneys have seen an increasing number of complaints. In most cases, the victims didn’t realize they were dealing with a phony lawyer until they contacted the Bar.
The type of scam also appears to be changing. The UPL cases opened last year involved the fake attorneys collecting fees for potential clients and then disappearing or claiming to have a buyer for the victims’ timeshare and needing payments to pay closing and other costs.
This year, ACAP attorneys are seeing cases that involve sweepstakes or lotteries in other countries.
Shanell M. Schuyler, a senior attorney with ACAP, has fielded several complaints from victims and laid out how the scam usually works.
The victim, she said, “receives a call from the [fake] attorney stating that he represents American Dream Sweepstakes and the [victim] has just won $1.6 million, which is in trust in an offshore bank.”
Not surprisingly, the recipient of the call is usually skeptical, so the scam artist provides his fake attorney name, his own phone number, the Bar number of a real Florida Bar member, and the Bar’s main phone number. The call recipient is then invited to contact the Bar to verify that the lawyer does exist and has a clean disciplinary record.
Schuyler said usually the scam artist assumes the identity of a new Bar member who has not yet listed a phone number or e-mail address and may only have a post office box address, which makes it hard for the victim to reach the real attorney even if the victim checks on the lawyer through the Bar’s Web site.
“The scammer then tells the [victim] that he is responsible for one-half of the insurance premium to wire transfer the funds from the offshore bank to the United States,” Schuyler said.
If that money is paid, the fake attorney then comes up with more ruses, such as courier fees, claims that the courier got held up in customs and has to be bailed out, and the like. Some victims have lost $15,000 to $20,000, she said.
Eventually the scam artist breaks off contact and the frustrated victim contacts the Bar to file a complaint, and then learns about the confidence scheme, she said.
“It involves originally asking for a small amount but graduates to additional higher requests,” said Arne Varnstrum, another Bar attorney who has handled three complaints involving supposed sweepstakes or lotteries in Argentina and Australia.
“I think the psychology of the scam is that once they get a small amount that it is easier to get more and the victim is less likely to say no,” he said. “One man I spoke to lost everything he had under this ruse. I think it was difficult for him to accept the fact that the money he had already paid was for nothing so he kept paying more.
“The common theme I have seen is no record bar phone number or e-mail [for the Bar member whose identity is assumed],” Varnstrum added. “The caller encourages the victim to contact The Florida Bar to confirm they are a member in good standing so as to legitimize the scam. Because of limited contact info, there is no way for the victim to directly contact the attorney. This also makes it difficult for us to contact the attorney as well.”
He added that until they contacted the Bar, all three victims had thought they were dealing with a real Florida attorney and were ready to file a complaint.
Erin McLaughlin, another ACAP attorney, said in a recent case she got, the victim was initially asked to pay a nominal fee, and then asked for several thousand dollars. Fortunately, that person checked with ACAP before paying the additional money.
Schuyler, who has seen about a dozen cases, said in some instances one Bar member’s name has been used to scam multiple victims.
About the only way for Bar members to protect their names, Varnstrum said, is to make sure they have up-to-date phone numbers and e-mail addresses filed with the Bar, which make it easier for potential victims to contact the real lawyer.
But that may not be enough.
Bar Unlicensed Practice of Law Counsel Lori Holcomb said she has recently had three UPL complaints filed that involved scams other than sweepstakes and lotteries and where the con artists posed as lawyers with readily available contact information. One was a veteran lawyer in a national firm, and another was an assistant state attorney. Both had phone numbers and regular mail addresses in Bar records, including being available on the Bar’s Web site.
The filings also involved different scams. In one case, the con artist was trying to get money for the bogus sale or rental of a house — a scheme that fizzled when the victim checked and discovered the misappropriation of the lawyerly identity.
Holcomb said the cases can be frustrating, because there’s little the Bar can do, since it has no criminal investigatory powers and there’s usually little information to track the con artist.