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September 1, 2017

Bar wants to protect Florida lawyers and the public from identity theft

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Earlier this month, Anthony Christopher Robinson got a call from an elderly woman convinced he was in cahoots with a phony sweepstakes scam that had tried to dupe her.

She had his full name and Florida Bar number, as well as his law firm cell phone number.

Quote Robinson persuaded her that he was not the dishonest person trying to rip her off. Robinson referred her to his member profile on the Bar’s webpage, where, at the top, appears this fraud alert: “The Florida Bar has been advised that attorney Mr. Anthony Christopher Robinson is the victim of identity theft. If you have been contacted on an unsolicited basis by someone claiming to be this attorney or by someone on this attorney’s behalf and have any reason to doubt such person’s identity, please contact Mr. Anthony Christopher Robinson at [phone number]. Thank you.”

It’s all part of The Florida Bar’s continuing efforts to protect Florida lawyers and the public from identity theft.

“The Florida Bar has made security of its members’ information a top priority and focuses time and resources to keep up with evolving threats,” said Shanell Schuyler, director of intake at the Bar’s Attorney/Consumer Assistance Program.

She advises both members of the public who have been contacted by someone claiming to be a Florida Bar member, as well as lawyers who believe their identities have been stolen, to call the ACAP Hotline at 866-352-0707. The more information the Bar has about the latest fraudulent schemes, the better able the Bar is to prevent future scams by educating members and the public, she said.

Information about identity theft is retained for one year in the Bar’s database. Schuyler also advises lawyers who may be victims of identity fraud to notify their local law enforcement agency, as well as the Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Hotline at 866-966-7226.

If a complaint is filed by a consumer concerning a scheme to defraud them, the lawyer may be required to respond to a formal Bar grievance. The lawyer can point to the reference number from ACAP as proof they were proactive and notified the Bar about the identity theft.

In Robinson’s case, in February, the Florida Bar reached out to him first, to let him know there was a California investigation about a Florida lawyer matching his identity who had ripped off an elderly person in an investment scheme.

As Robinson recalls, the elderly person’s son initiated an investigation in California, the FBI was involved, and The Florida Bar was contacted during the course of that investigation.

“I was concerned that I was going to be connected with something that wasn’t true,” Robinson said, describing his first reaction to the news his identity had been stolen. “I was general counsel in Sunrise, and I was making the move to Greenberg Traurig and making the move to its Denver office. I was also applying to take the Colorado bar exam, and my application was still pending. I was concerned it could delay things.”

All in all, he said, “It went well with The Florida Bar. But I question whether the posting of my telephone number and Bar number should be mandatory. That is creating opportunities for people, especially if you have a common name like my name.”

But Schuyler notes that such information is not only mandated by rule to be shared as public record, but actually helps protect lawyers and consumers against fraud.

“It’s much better for attorneys to keep their information up to date and accurate, so the public has the best means to get in touch with those attorneys,” she said, when trying to confirm if fraud or identity theft has taken place.

Schuyler has noticed that attorneys whose information is not up to date on their member profile pages seem to be targeted for identity theft most often.

“Attorneys who are new to practice or are transitioning between employers may not list a current telephone number, physical address, or email, as required by the rules — those are the ones more likely targeted by the scam artists,” Schuyler said.

For example, she said, sometimes the victim of fraud only has the phone number given by the scammer. If the consumer looks up the lawyer on the Bar’s website and calls the lawyer directly, it can prevent the fraud from being carried out.

“The lawyer search function is the most highly used on our website. If that is up to date, the consuming public will have tools available to check out the attorney for themselves. Additionally, our regulation department can look up the names of attorneys,” Schuyler said. “I would prompt this additional question: If someone is going to call and ask: ‘Is this person really an attorney?’ they need to go a step further. Ask the Bar for the lawyer’s contact information. What is their direct phone number?”

In the case of Jacksonville lawyer Michael Stanski, he received a message from a lady in New York who claimed an attorney using his name and Florida Bar number contacted her making demands.

“This lady fortunately searched my name and found a media appearance where I spoke,” Stanski wrote to Bar President Michael Higer on July 29.

“From the video, this lady was able to ascertain that the person who called her was not me. I wrote because we need to get better at fraud prevention. The entire profession is tarnished if lay people are subject to fraud from criminals pretending to be members of the Bar.”

In an interview with the News, Stanski said he formerly served as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service and investigated identity theft, and now represents military members and veterans in civilian courts.

The New York woman Googled his name and found a video he had done in Jacksonville, he said.

“She was able to identify my voice was not the same voice on the telephone versus the video,” he said. “That led her to conclude that this wasn’t Mike Stanski. She didn’t go into much detail with me, but it was something like, ‘Hey, I’m an attorney. You have come into a settlement because of XYZ, and we need a little seed money to get the settlement money to you.’ The classic Nigerian prince scheme. The other common theme is to use the position of attorney to coerce or threaten or try to influence folks to make a payment out of fear.”

Stanski suggests the Bar keep a registry, and batch all of the cases together to turn over to law enforcement, and put a video of voice samples on attorneys’ member pages.

“Florida leads the country in identity theft. Miami and Tampa lead the nation,” Stanski said. “It’s a huge issue. I think the Bar has to step up their game, not just to protect the members, but be the gold standard for the country and the public. Mike Stanski is not the victim here. It’s the public. I have had to interview fraudsters and arrest them. What I will tell you, they are constantly evolving. The folks that are really good at this stuff, and put in time and effort, I believe they are trying to get money. It’s a big problem for the Bar.”

Schuyler agrees it’s a big problem the Bar takes very seriously.

“As these scams seem to morph and transform themselves, we are always looking for new and better ways to protect our members and the public,” she said.

And part of that ongoing work, she said, is keeping up with what kinds of scams are out there, so the Bar is better equipped to stay on top of it. That’s why she urges consumers and lawyers alike to let the Bar know about suspected identity theft by calling the ACAP hotline at 866-352-0707. If someone sounds fishy, don’t take a chance. Report it.

“The lawyers may never know their names are being used in this way,” Schuyler said. “The more information you give us, the better we can work to protect the public and the lawyer. The more we know, the more we can push out to our members ideas on how to protect the public and themselves. It is still evolving. The more we know, the more we can do to help.”

[Revised: 12-11-2017]