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Criminals are out there pretending to be lawyers

Senior Editor Regular News

'When you inject an attorney in the mix, it gives it credibility'

Palm Beach Gardens attorney Stephen Cook got a call from an inactive Florida Bar member (who still practices in Georgia) about an Ohio couple seeking an update on the prospective sale of their time-share unit.

There were several problems. The couple was under the impression the Georgia lawyer represented a potential buyer and worked for Cook’s firm. But the Georgia lawyer didn’t know the couple and had never contacted the pair. And Cook — who is a sole practitioner — didn’t know either the couple or the Georgia attorney.

It turned out Cook and the Georgia attorney were sort of victims in a variation of identify theft: someone assumed their identity in order to scam another party. In this case, the con artist convinced the Ohio couple to send more than $2,000 after he claimed to have found a buyer for the couple’s time-share unit.

The couple didn’t catch on until they noticed a ZIP code error when the scammer was trying to get another payment, and they tracked down the inactive attorney who then contacted Cook.

“It was shock and disbelief on how this kind of thing could happen,” said Cook, when he learned of the scam. “I felt like it’s what Shakespeare wrote. He who steals my purse steals trash, but he who steals my name steals all.”

Bar UPL Counsel Lori Holcomb said the Bar has occasionally run across such problems in the past, but has recently run into a spate of complaints involving people assuming a real Bar member’s identity to bilk a third party.

In one case, a person pretended to be a lawyer, signed up three clients, collected fees, and then disappeared. The real attorney had no idea of the fraud until the clients contacted the Bar and the Attorney-Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP) contacted her. The case was sent to the Bar’s UPL Department, which opened a file, Holcomb said. In another case, a victim was contacted by a person posing as another Bar member. The victim was told he had won a sweepstakes, but needed to wire money to the “lawyer” in order to facilitate the transfer of the winnings. When no winnings were forthcoming, “the people called to complain about the lawyer,” Holcomb said. “And this was the first the attorney had heard about it.”

The con artists may rent a mail box from a private mailing company, she said, and list a street address and the suite number, while in reality that address is the mailbox company and “suite” is a mailbox number.

The case involving Cook and the fake buyers of the time-share involved a different payment scheme. Cook said the Ohio couple was directed to send a Western Union quick collect money order.

“When you inject an attorney in the mix, it gives it credibility in many instances, and I’m sure that’s what they were trying to do,” he said of the scammer.

Cook said the couple was contacted by a person who identified himself as the Georgia lawyer and said he was working in the Orlando area. He claimed to have a buyer for the time-share unit and asked that money for various appraisals or closing costs be forwarded. On one of the subsequent calls, he said he worked out of Cook’s Palm Beach Gardens office. Apparently becoming suspicious, the couple checked Cook’s address and found the ZIP code they had been given was erroneous. They then tracked down the out-of-state lawyer who contacted Cook, and the three parties got together on a conference call.

Cook said he has no idea how or why the scam artist picked his office to lend credibility to his scam, but suspects it may have been from his bio page on the Bar’s Web site. It may also have been that bio page that alerted the victims to the erroneous ZIP code and prevented them from losing more money, he said.

Cook said he’s aware that the Bar has submitted to the Supreme Court new regulations on attorney Web sites, but his experience is also making him reconsider what information he includes on his site.

“The thought I had is ‘How can I protect myself from this in the future?’” he said. “After last week’s experience, I’m going to have a little more thought about what we put on the site. There is a lot of foreclosure scams out there, and that’s what we do [at his law firm].”

The Bar’s Holcomb said some traditional protections don’t work in this type of scheme. For example, if the Ohio couple had called the Bar to inquire about Cook, they would have been told that he is a member in good standing because the Bar, like the couple, would have no idea the person who contacted them was a fraud.

Plus, the con artists can get information from a variety of sources: the Bar’s Web site, attorney Web sites, attorney ads, or even business cards or letterheads from law offices, she said.

“These con artists are getting the information,” Holcomb said. “You can walk by an office and get a card.”

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