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August 1, 2012
Con artists still trying to sting attorneys

By Mark D. Killian
Managing Editor

They’re still out there, those who would separate lawyers from their money. And while the tactics are ever shifting, the old cashier’s check appears to remain a constant.

A Tampa lawyer recently contacted the News to let us know how a pretty savvy fraudster tried to put one over on her. This time the scam artist deviated from the traditional unsolicited email seeking representation to collect money owed from a divorce settlement or unpaid commercial debt, and made initial contact with the attorney through a real estate broker the lawyer had done business with in the past.

The scam artist, holding himself out as a London orthopedic surgeon, contracted with a Tampa real estate broker to purchase a home in Florida.

“He asked the broker to find a reputable real estate attorney to assist him with the purchase,” the lawyer, who asked to remain unidentified, said.

“I’d had some dealing with the broker in the past, so he thought to call me, and he sent me a real estate contract that was even signed by this guy.”

The lawyer said everything “looked legitimate,” although she thought the price the “doctor” was paying for the property was a bit high, “but that is not something necessarily unusual to have a sales price that is a little off.”

But before taking on the new client, the lawyer told the broker she needed to speak with the doctor and get an engagement letter in place.

“So the scammer called me the next day from a number that came up on my phone as anonymous, which is always a little bit unusual,” she said. “I talked with him for a few minutes, and he said he basically wanted to move to the states.”

Not long after, a certified check for $125,000 arrived in the mail, postmarked in Canada.

Now the red flags started going up.

The lawyer’s retainer is $4,000 and the escrow is $1,000, “so why the hell is he sending me all this money?”

But, since the lawyer didn’t want a cashier’s check laying around, she put it in her trust account and asked the bank to check on it.

The “doctor” then sent our lawyer disbursement instructions, which included sending $50,000 out of the cashier’s check to another bank “so he could buy furniture.”

The bank concluded the check was a fake, and the lawyer insisted the “doctor” wire money to her for any business to continue, and, of course, the con man was never heard from again.

“Normally, the scams I see are you get emails out of the blue from people you don’t know that say they need an attorney to represent them in collecting a final judgment,” the lawyer said.

“I just delete those right away. But because this one came through a broker I had past dealings with, it had a little bit more air of legitimacy.”

The lawyer said the broker, who was not in on the scam, was quite embarrassed he was used as a patsy, and she also worries that a less experienced lawyer might have fallen for the scam. The cashier’s check was a “very good fake,” she said.

The cashier’s check scam works because banks typically permit the immediate disbursement of funds based on a cashier’s check before it is finally settled and because Bar Rule 5-1.1(j), holds that cashier’s checks carry a “limited and acceptable risk of failure” and are allowed to be disbursed before they are “finally settled, and credited to the lawyer’s trust account.”

“I think most members of the Bar have become savvy enough that unless the cashier’s check comes from someone they know, you let it sit and confirm you’ve got the money,” she said. “Otherwise, you will be pulling it out of your pocket.”

[Revised: 10-22-2014]