By Gary Blankenship
It’s a new name, but the same old scam.
Con artists have apparently revived a defunct Web site under a new identity for their old game of impersonating Florida attorneys to con fees, handling costs, insurance payments, and similar charges from Florida residents by convincing them they have won a — usually foreign — sweepstakes or lottery.
Bar Assistant Unlicensed Practice of Law Counsel Jeffrey Picker said at least one resident has lost $13,000 to the scheme.
Another new twist is the scammers, aside from claiming to be Bar members, also say they are representing federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security or the Internal Revenue Service, apparently in an attempt to further add legitimacy with their intended victims, Picker said.
While it’s not absolutely certain the new Web site is operated by the same people as the old one, Picker said there are enough similarities to make him think it’s the same people.
The old site, www.gandsattorneys.com, closed late last year, as the Bar and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked into it. FDLE ultimately concluded since the site was being operated outside the country and, at that time there had been no Florida victims, there was nothing FDLE could do.
The new site, www.floridabondedtrustattorneys.com, has a different look than the old site, but also many similarities.
For example, its listed address turns out to be the location for Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville. That was one of the “firm” addresses listed by the gandsattorneys.com. Also, some of the same lawyers impersonated by gandsattorneys are being impersonated on the new site.
And there’s this unique practice area described on the new site which is word-for-word (except for the firm name) lifted — complete with misspelling — from the gandsattorneys site: “Florida Bonded Trust Attorneys is also properly registered to privide (sic) information and finalize any procedures regarding sweepstakes claims.”
The scammers also appear to have been careless in listing some attorneys. At least one name on the new site is not listed on the Bar’s Web site as a Bar member, and another listed as practicing in Palm Beach County actually practices in New York. However, despite its Jacksonville address, none of the lawyers listed as members of the fake firm have their official Bar addresses — which are given on the site — in Jacksonville or the Fourth Circuit.
Picker said the Bar’s UPL office is notifying Bar members when they are impersonated, and advising any who want to take action to file a complaint with FDLE. FDLE had referred its earlier investigation to the FBI, but found little interest. Picker said that disinterest might change since the scammers are now claiming to represent federal agencies.
Bar UPL Counsel Lori Holcomb said there is little the Bar can do directly because the con artists apparently are not in the state. It has been notifying lawyers when their identity is used on the Web site and talking with victims and potential victims when they contact the Bar for more information. Some callers are reluctant to accept that imposters, not real lawyers, have been contacting them.
“That’s when I tell them that under Bar rules, lawyers can’t directly solicit them for business,” Holcomb said. “So they have two choices: Either they are dealing with an unethical lawyer or a scam artist, and why would they want to have anything to do with either?”
That, she said, usually is a persuasive argument.
The best way to combat the scams, Holcomb said, is through publicity to both lawyers and the public warning them that attorneys are being impersonated to try to add legitimacy to the scams.