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Florida lawyer catches email scammer attempting to retain legal services

Senior Editor Top Stories
Ronald Austin

Ronald Austin

The holiday season is a festive time filled with gatherings, gifting, and decorating with family and friends. As the calendar turns to December, the last thing people are thinking about is internet spammers and scammers who can prey on their email and bank accounts.

According to statistics from Google, the holidays are the exact time when scammers ramp up their activity. In the last two weeks alone, the internet company that runs the popular Gmail service has blocked over 231 billion spam and phishing messages, which is more than 10% higher than the average volume.

Florida’s attorneys are keenly aware of these threats made through email and are diligent in protecting their clients from those threats. However, what happens when scammers attack the attorneys themselves asking for legal services?

When Jacksonville-based civil trial attorney Ronald Austin received an email from a potential client asking for help with a sales contract for a medical equipment company, he did his research before responding directly.

Austin, a member of The Florida Bar and the State Bar of Georgia, has 42 years of experience with commercial transactions and civil contract litigation. The email he received was from someone claiming to be Jeff Wilson, CEO and president of Promethean Surgical Devices based out of East Hartford, Connecticut.

“Before I responded, I looked at the company online to ensure it was legitimate,” Austin said. “Promethean is in fact a legitimate company and Jeff Wilson is indeed their CEO.”

Once Austin concluded the company was real, he replied to the initial email.

Austin asked Wilson to explain the nature of the sales transaction. The fake CEO asked Austin for his legal services to prepare the sales contract, bill of sale, and closing of four Isokinetic Dynamometer Systems to the Taylor Regional Hospital in Hawkinsville, Georgia.

While the information seemed correct, Austin was still wary.

“While I am pleased that you reached out to me; I cannot help wondering why you are considering my services instead of others. As you can see, my longevity invites a certain degree of skepticism and there may be no real basis for it other than that,” Austin replied in his email.

The scammer’s reply raised another red flag for the veteran attorney.

“As I stated in my foremost email correspondence with you, my in-house council recommended your firm amongst others,” the scammer’s reply stated.

“That looked very fishy to me. The email thread spelled in-house counsel with an ‘i’ and not an ‘e’ both times. The first time could be dismissed as a typo, but no one who has an in-house counsel misspells that twice in the same thread,” Austin said.

The scammer finally got a hold of Austin by phone and that call brought further skepticism.

“The fake Jeff Wilson claimed that this was a simple matter and should only take about two weeks,” Austin said. “At that point, all the red flags went off in my head because I knew something like this couldn’t be done in two weeks.”

Austin said that the caller also had a distinct accent that didn’t sound American, but more Nigerian. When Austin asked about his authenticity, the scammer froze.

“He said he lived in California all his life,” Austin said. “Someone who’s lived in America all their life doesn’t have that thick of a Nigerian accent.”

Sensing Austin was onto his ploy, the scammer hung up the phone.

Austin speculates that if they came to an agreement on the terms, the spammer may have asked for his bank account information to send the retainer, and then clean it out.

Austin said the scammer probably reached out to him because he was licensed in both Florida and Georgia as the terms of the sale were meant for a Georgia hospital.

“Someone needs to reach out to this company because it looks like their information is being used to scam others,” Austin said.

Related to spoofing and phishing emails, IT experts say when reviewing emails such as the one Austin received, it is always best to trust your gut. If you believe it’s spam or malicious, marking it as junk will move it to your junk email folder and further correspondence from the sender will be moved there as well. The emails can always be retrieved from the junk folder later, should they prove to be legitimate.

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