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There is a new wrinkle on an old scam targeting lawyers

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Pompano Beach attorney Geil Bilu opened a UPS package at his law office last month and out popped a cashier’s check for $890,000.

It was accompanied by a letter from a company in Ontario, Canada, asking him to handle making installment payments on a $3.7 million debt to a Chinese company. The letter included this instruction: “Retainer fee and all your charges and expenses should be deducted from this payment.”

A bit later, an e-mail arrived from the “creditor” company with some (grammatically imperfect) instructions on how payment should be made.

Bilu’s only profit from the “transaction” was a good laugh. He instantly recognized the check as a fake.

“I do a lot of real estate work and I deal with cashier’s checks all the time,” he said. “They should have put this in the kids’ Highlights magazine, ‘Can you spot five things wrong with this check?’”

(One obvious fault: the check still included the purchaser’s receipt.)

He also recognized it as a new wrinkle in an apparently increasingly common scam aimed at Florida lawyers.

In the usual approach — of which Bilu says he sees about a dozen a week — the lawyer is contacted, usually by e-mail and asked to represent a foreign company in collecting a debt. (Most of the companies seem to be in China.) If the lawyer bites and contacts the “debtor,” the amount owed is paid with a certified or cashier’s check.

The lawyer then deposits the check in his or her trust account and, after deducting fees and costs, forwards it to the creditor — only to discover a few days later the check from the debtor was bogus and has bounced, and consequently the trust account is out of balance if not overdrawn.

In this new twist, the supposed “debtor” contacts the lawyer and supplies the money up front, simplifying the collection process and the “creditor” chips in with payment instructions. The debtor in this case was located in Canada and the creditor in China; both appear to be legitimate companies being unknowingly used by the scammers. The bank the “check” is drawn on is also real. The creditor’s instructions include not to contact the creditor company directly but to use the “private” e-mail address of the alleged company official sending the instructions to get final payment details.

Bilu contacted the state Office of the Attorney General and was told those type of scams are common now. He contacted the Bar Ethics Hotline to report the attempted rip-off because, “if a less experienced attorney got it, he or she might be fooled.”

He said he assumed the scam artists picked his firm, which concentrates in loan modifications and foreclosure defense, either from its Web site or from its Internet ads.

Bar Ethics Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert said Bilu’s experience is not unusual, and she has this advice for those who call with questions about such schemes: “If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.”

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