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September 15, 2016
‘Fake’ lawyers arrested

Foreclosure defense firm alleged to have preyed on young lawyers via Craigslist

By Mark D. Killian
Managing Editor

The Attorney General’s Office filed an action in August to stop a group of South Florida nonlawyers who allegedly ran illegitimate foreclosure defense and loan modification law firms that also recruited unsuspecting young lawyers through Craigslist ads to front their operations.

Adam Todd Forman, Joseph Anton Hilton — aka Joseph Starr — Victor Spagnuolo, and others, all of whom are not lawyers, operate the Asset Protection Law Firm, Heritage Law Group, Liberty Law Group, Consumer Legal Resources, Consumer Legal Advocates, Legal Referral Services, Galler Lehman Law, and Selective Housing Solutions. According to the AG’s civil injunctive complaint, the defendants, through these firms, unlawfully deceived homeowners into paying hefty up-front and monthly fees for legal services not supervised or approved by licensed attorneys.

Adam Todd Forman Forman, 46,and Hilton, 56,are also facing criminal charges of practicing law without licenses.

“Florida homeowners facing the stress of foreclosure should not have to worry about scammers posing as lawyers and making false promises of relief to get what little money the homeowners may have,” AG Pam Bondi said.

Florida Bar UPL counsel worked closely with the Attorney General’s Office and local and federal law enforcement officials throughout the investigation.

According to the complaint, the defendants, “created one fake law firm after another,” leaving behind a string of victims who have lost or are about to lose their homes as a result of their actions.

“The nonlawyers have also jeopardized the future careers of several licensed attorneys who were unknowingly and unwittingly utilized as the ‘front men’ for the fake law firms,” the complaint said. “The homeowner clients believed these licensed attorneys were representing them when, in fact, the attorneys had absolutely no idea the clients even existed.”

These are the same nonlawyer entities that offered young, inexperienced lawyers jobs involving foreclosure-related rescue services through Craigslist ads as detailed in a June 15 News story, said Will Spillias, the Bar’s UPL counsel in Tallahassee. He added the unsuspecting young lawyers thought they were signing up for part-time work and suddenly — and without their consent — found themselves as attorney of record in hundreds of cases or listed with the state as corporate directors for multiple entities.

According to the AG’s complaint, the scam’s modus operandi was to hire contract lawyers through Craigslist and deceive them into unwittingly turning over their names and Bar licenses, which the scammers then used on its retainer agreements, letterhead, pleadings, and even corporate filings with the state.

Joseph Anton Hilton “The enterprise then goes so far as to electronically sign and file boilerplate pleadings under that attorney’s name without the attorney ever knowing the clients exist,” the complaint said.

For example, one attorney, who obtained her Bar license less than a month before being hired by the scammers, was told she was going to cover three or four hearings.

“However, the enterprise put her name on their roster of close to 400 clients whom she had never met, and added her name and Bar number to pleadings filed with the court that she had never seen or approved,” the complaint said.

Ali Vazquez, UPL counsel at the Bar’s Ft. Lauderdale branch office, said the young lawyers were getting paid $550 a week for what they thought was part-time work, and when the contract attorneys realized something was amiss and quit, the scammers would move on to another unsuspecting and often brand-new lawyer.

Vazquez noted it is a violation of the rules of professional conduct for a lawyer to just review documents “without really meeting the client or seeing the file — and that was what was happening here.”

The AG’s complaint against the nonlawyer entities seeks an injunction barring the defendants from engaging in future loan modification, foreclosure defense, and legal services, and also seeks full restitution for consumers harmed by the defendants’ activities.

The complaint said the fake firms made money by directing their “clients” to stop making mortgage payments and to pay the “law firm” instead.

“The enterprise then specifically directs the consumers not to talk to their lenders and to disregard written communications they may receive in the mail, claiming the ‘law firm’ will handle all such communications,” according to the complaint. “In fact, the enterprise has caused and continues to cause consumers to lose their foreclosure cases and their homes, including consumers who were not in default or foreclosure when they initially hired the enterprise.”

The AG’s complaint also alleges “Starr and Forman have harassed, intimidated, and threatened consumers who stopped making payments to the enterprise or indicated displeasure with the progress of their cases.”

Since the distressed homeowners were doubly victimized by these fake law offices when their very real legal problems were neglected, The Florida Bar encourages the victims to immediately contact a licensed attorney to assist them in modifying their mortgages and/or defend them in their foreclosure action. Residents of Broward County may call the Broward County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at 954-764-8310, and residents in Palm Beach County should call the Palm Beach County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at 561-687-3266. If a local lawyer referral service is not available, victims can visit www.floridabar.org/lawyerreferral or call The Florida Bar Lawyer Referral Service at 800-342-8011.

“Each of the victims will need to hire a lawyer to assist with any legal issues caused by or worsened by the fraudulent activity,” said Francine Walker, director of the Bar’s Public Information and Bar Services Department.

Victims are also encouraged to contact Coral Springs Detective Jason DeLuca via email at jdeluca@coralsprings.org and the Florida Attorney General’s fraud hotline at (866) 9-NO-SCAM.

The Florida Bar also offers several consumer pamphlets that may be helpful, including “Filing an Unlicensed Practice of Law Complaint” and “Hiring the Right Person to Help Me With My Legal Problems,” which may be obtained by visiting www.floridabar.org/consumerpamphlets.

[Revised: 04-27-2017]