Scam artist creates fake e-filing account in real lawyer’s name
Makes off with $130,000
By Mark D. Killian
Identity thieves targeted at least one unsuspecting Florida lawyer with a brazen new scam and walked away with over $130,000.
Shanell Schuyler, director of ACAP/Intake at The Florida Bar, said the Bar recently received a complaint against an attorney when surplus money from a foreclosure action didn’t make its way to the rightful owner.
But the young lawyer targeted in the Bar complaint wasn’t even involved in the case.
Turns out someone misappropriated the real lawyer’s name and created a fictitious firm and registered that fake firm with the state. Schuyler said the fraudulent firm bearing the real lawyer’s name included an address across the state from where the real lawyer practices. The scam artist opened an e-filing account through the statewide portal using the real lawyer’s name and Bar number.
“The real lawyer had never registered for the e-filing portal account under her own Bar number because she uses her firm’s account whenever there is a need to e-file,” said Schuyler, noting all the lawyers at her firm e-file under one account, a common practice across the state.
Schuyler said the fake lawyer then filed a notice of appearance falsely indicating that she represented the client involved in the foreclosure sale in which over $130,000 in surplus money was deposited into the court registry. The fake lawyer then filed a motion to obtain the surplus funds. The unsuspecting judge signed the order authorizing the funds to be disbursed and the clerk released the funds without the slightest suspicion of the nefarious act being committed.
All it takes to open an e-filing account is to fill out online forms using a lawyer’s name, Bar number, email address, and physical address.
Melvin Cox and Carolyn Weber, who oversee the portal’s operation, said when a problem like this arises with an e-filing account, they cooperate with investigating authorities by providing the IP address where the account was opened and any other relevant information. They also said the scam does not depend on the electronic registration or e-filing to succeed, as under the old paper filing system the scammer simply could have dropped off the same paperwork — or had it delivered by another person — to the clerk’s office with the same result.
What can lawyers do to protect themselves? Schuyler said that lawyers may want to consider opening an e-filing account under their own Bar numbers regardless of whether they plan to e-file or not.
“It’s a process that takes less than five minutes, but it protects the lawyer’s Bar number from being utilized in this type of scam,” Schuyler said.
The Florida Bar Practice Resource Institute (PRI) has posted tips and links to other resources for Florida Bar members to use to protect themselves from fraud and their computers from malware on its webpage at www.floridabar.org/PRI.