By Mark D. Killian
Mike Mackenzie, a board certified real estate lawyer in Dunedin, doesn’t mess with timeshares, so he was naturally concerned when his office started receiving inquiries about the status of the sale of a number of Orlando units.
Turns out con men are pretending to be Mackenzie in order to bilk unsuspecting timeshare owners.
“At least two people I know of have parted with their money on this scheme, and all of them were led to believe it was me that was involved,” Mackenzie said.
Mackenzie is not alone. The Bar recently was alerted that charlatans are running scams using the identities of an out-of-state member from Virginia and a Miami lawyer. In one, the fraudsters tried to weasel money out of a company that buys structured settlements. In the other, a con man pretending to be a Florida lawyer tried to extract a “security deposit” from a widow whom he said had won a sweepstakes.
In Mackenzie’s case, here is how it went down:
The owners of at least two timeshares in Orlando, who had previously had their units on the market, got a call out of the blue from a man identifying himself as “Kenny Masko,” telling them he had a buyer for their condos and that a lawyer, Mike Mackenzie, was going to facilitate the transaction and would soon be in contact.
In short order, both condo owners do hear from a man claiming to be Mike Mackenzie, who tells them it is standard for the sellers to pay the transaction fees up front. The fake lawyer Mackenzie then instructs the victims where to wire the transaction fees.
Of course, once the money is exchanged, the condo owners never hear from the con men again — and they go looking for Mackenzie.
Both timeshare owners were able to locate the real Mackenzie through Internet searches.
“Both of them then called me here at the office,” said Mackenzie, adding that after speaking with the victims, they soon realized he was not the Mike Mackenzie they had been dealing with.
“My concerns are, one, I don’t want to be somebody that suddenly people all over the place say, ‘Who is this Mike Mackenzie that is screwing everybody?’ and, secondly, these people are getting had on this deal.”
Mackenzie said one couple was taken for $500 or $600 and the other wired away $300.
In Virginia, out-of-state member Candy Johnson received a call from a representative of a New York company that buys structured settlements.
“He had been contacted by someone claiming to be me, using my Bar number — but not my address or phone number — trying to get a cash advance on a nonexistent lawsuit,” Johnson said.
“She is just totally trying to steal, based on my identity, by using my Bar number and my name that she was able to pull up online.”
Johnson said the con artist went through the pains of creating a fake lawsuit, including settlement letters from an insurance company, that she submitted to the settlement buying business.
Fortunately, Johnson said, the structured settlements company didn’t bite, and a little investigation led them to the real Candy Johnson, who confirmed she was not involved and there was no record of the case they were trying to get money from filed in Broward County.
“When I said, ‘No, that’s not me,’ he said, ‘I thought so; let me let you know what’s going on here,’” Johnson said. “There is nothing I could have done to prevent it. I don’t know if they are still using my information and won’t know until somebody else contacts me.”
In the Miami case, the Bar’s Legal Division received a letter from a Belton, Missouri, women who reported she had received a phone call from a “Miami lawyer” informing her she had won $100,000 in a sweepstakes.
“He proceeded to inform me of personal information that he knew, such as my address, the number of years I had worked for the federal government, and that I was a widow,” the women wrote, adding the fake lawyer told her she could log on to the Bar’s website to verify his name and status.
“After discussion, [the fake lawyer] stated I needed to mail him a security deposit of $395 in order to receive the $100,000. When he stated this, I thanked him and hung up.”
The Bar alerted the real Miami lawyer to inform him that his name was being used in the scam.
Johnson laments that attorneys’ Bar numbers and other information are so readily available online.
“There is no way to guard against this,” Johnson said. “There is nothing I could have done to prevent this — safeguarding my information or anything else. I’m not going to be the last one they try to do this with.”
Mackenzie also concedes there is little or nothing lawyers can do to prevent charlatans from misappropriating their names, but wanted to let other Bar members know these schemes do exist.
“Why they would pick me, I have no idea, except maybe they were randomly trying to find a board certified real estate lawyer, and I was the one who got picked,” he said.
For the general public, Mackenzie suggests they do some investigation before wiring money to someone they had only been dealing with over the phone.
“These people essentially did the right thing; the problem is they did not do it in the right order,” Mackenzie said. “They wired the money and then investigated.”
Mackenzie said if the condo owners had contacted his office first, “neither one of them would be out a penny.”
“My biggest concern is there are just two of them that called me. How many more are out there that did not call?” Mackenzie asked.
“There is no way to know, and that could be the source of somebody complaining to the Bar or someplace else that I had done something improper.”