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Con men try to make you their mark

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Con men try to make you their mark

Just because a bank makes funds from a cashier’s check available doesn’t mean the money is actually sitting in your trust account

Mark D. Killian

Managing Editor

As much as you really, really, really want it to be true, that Belgian company that asks for your help in facilitating the sale of the floating dredger is a scam.

So is the email from the Korean women needing your help collecting funds from a divorce settlement. And the Chinese firm requesting your services to collect an unpaid commercial debt. Or the doctor from England who wants you to help him buy a vacation home on the beach.

What presents itself to be a fat payday for little or no actual legal work could end up costing you plenty.

While the tactics of the con men are ever shifting — and seemingly becoming more and more sophisticated — all these are just variations of the old cashier’s check scam, and they are happening across the country.

The Texas Bar Blog is reporting that it recently received a report of an elaborate scam from an attorney who received a request for assistance. The lawyer spoke on the phone to the supposed client, who asked that a buyer send the firm a 15 percent deposit from a purchase price to use as a retainer, that the firm bills their fees against it, and returns the remainder to the client.

According to the Texas Bar Blog: “The attorney who reported the scam gives more detail: ‘I was contacted with the Nic de Roeck scam.. . . They said the buyer of the floating dredger was Loadmaster Universal Rigs, Inc., in Houston, and said that was why they were contacting our Houston firm for assistance or referral to handle the sale agreement — so it was more targeted than the ‘in your jurisdiction’ scam emails. The Jan de Nul NV Group checks out as a legitimate Belgian company involved in dredging; the contact person (Nic de Roeck) seems to check out with what looks to be a company email; shows up on LinkedIn with a legitimate looking profile; and the buyer Loadmaster appears to check out as a company who would buy a dredger. The ‘client’ says that Loadmaster is represented by a ‘maritime broker’ out of Atlanta, Georgia, named Horizon Eternity Insurance Brokers, LLC. When I spoke to ‘Nic’ on the phone, he convincingly explained that JDN’s company policy was to have the buyer pay for all legal fees in connection with negotiating these sales and to put down a deposit on the sale as a form of ‘earnest money’ due to the international nature of the transaction, and asked if the buyer could send the deposit to us to hold and draw our fees against since it was local.”

The Texas lawyer told the Texas Bar Blog that raised suspicions, especially since the deposit was “huge” compared to the small retainer requested and small expected fees.

“And, when I shortly thereafter received an email from the ‘maritime broker’ that looked odd, I immediately suspected scam, researched the broker, and learned that Horizon is actually a health insurer out of the United Arab Emirates,” the Texas lawyer reported. “Although I had found him on LinkedIn, I also did a web search specifically for ‘Nic de Roeck’ and confirmed this scam. Fortunately, my red flags went up timely and we learned of the scam before getting caught up in this, but it’s well thought out and executed. And, because initial research makes the parties seem legitimate, it is likely to catch someone. Beware!”

Assistant Ethics Counsel Lili Quintiliani said The Florida Bar’s Ethics Hotline has been contacted “about the exact same scam” and a similar one involving a Belgian oil rig.

“It is the same as every one we have ever reported,” Quintiliani said. “You will eventually get a check sent to your office [for deposit in your trust account]. It’s always the same thing.”

Quintiliani said those who perpetrate these scams are “smart” and that’s why they misappropriate the names of real people and companies to make their scams believable.

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.” Elizabeth Tarbert, the Bar’s ethics counsel, said if a lawyer disburses money against uncollected funds — even if it is one of the exceptions in which the lawyer is allowed to disburse — it is at the lawyer’s own risk, and the lawyer will be responsible for replacing the missing money. “If the lawyer disburses against uncollected funds and one of the exceptions does not apply, the lawyer has violated the trust accounting rules and must report that to the Bar as part of the lawyer’s trust account certificate,” Tarbert said.

Tarbert emphasized that just because a bank makes funds from a cashier’s check available, it doesn’t mean the money is actually sitting in the account. “What it usually means is the bank will clear it because you have enough money in your account to cover the check,” Tarbert said. “It actually takes longer for the funds to become collected than the bank clearing it for you to make disbursements against.”

Tarbert also said just because there is an exception in Bar rules that allows lawyers to make disbursements against some uncollected funds, “doesn’t mean that you should, because you are doing so at your own risk and you are not required to do so.”

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