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The red flags of an email scam

June 29, 2011 By: FraudInfo Category: Fraud prevention

Many email scams are obvious due to poor spelling, bad grammar and/or completely untenable fact circumstances (e.g., multi-million dollar lottery wins or inheritances). However, some of the email-based frauds LAWPRO is seeing are extremely sophisticated and look like completely legitimate legal matters. The more sophisticated frauds have temporarily fooled new and experienced lawyers into working through file opening and initial stages of the matter before they recognized or determined they were the target of a fraud. And don’t be complacent – lawyers are being successfully duped by these frauds.

The common red flags that can indicate a matter is a fraud include:

  • Generically addressed emails (e.g., “Dear attorney” or “Attention counsel”);
  • Generically addressed emails sent to undisclosed recipients. This indicates that the message was BCC’d to you and dozens or hundreds of other lawyers;
  • Emails where the sender’s email address and the displayed name for that address are different;
  • Emails that request a reply be sent to a person or email address that is different from the sender’s name or email address;
  • Use of the word “attorney” in the subject line or body of the message (At least for Canadian lawyers);
  • Emails that give a referral source that wouldn’t have your name (e.g., a website that does not list you or a bar association that you are not a member of);
  • Individuals using a personal email account from AOL, MSN, GMail or similar free email service who contact you to do work on behalf of a major corporation or business. Why aren’t they using a corporate email address? Note that they may use the name of a real person who does actually work for that corporation – crosscheck name and contact info on websites or by phone;
  • Clients who insist that email is the only way to communicate due to time zone differences;
  • Clients who renege or delay on a promised payment of a retainer. When the bad cheque payment from the ex-spouse or loan advance arrives they will ask you to take payment from it;
  • Clients who, without question or hesitation, are willing to pay hourly rates, flat fees or contingency fees that are far higher than normal;
  • Clients who insist on or who are not worried about shortcuts being taken;
  • One or more delays in the promised payment or advance of funds. This is usually an attempt to create a sense of urgency to quickly disburse the funds when they finally do arrive;
  • Debtors who seem over-anxious or who unexpectedly pay outstanding debts;
  • The cheque or bank draft arrives from an address that doesn’t make sense, is in an envelope with a handwritten address and/or is without a covering letter;
  • The payment or loan advance is not in the form you expected or requested (i.e., it is not a bank draft or it is not certified) and/or it is for an amount that is different than expected;
  • The payor on the cheque or bank draft you receive doesn’t make sense given the type of payment (e.g., a payment of spousal support arrears by a cheque from corporation, charity or travel agency);
  • Unexpected changed circumstances that give rise to reasons the client wants to wire funds off-shore to third party on urgent basis for reason not related to the legal matter you are handling (e.g., to pay medical expenses or buy furniture);

Check for the red flags listed above if you have any suspicions that the matter you are handling is a fraud. While there can be good explanations for some matters to have one or two of the above red flags, you should be extra cautious and careful on any matter that has any of the above red flags. Question your client if things don’t add up or don’t make sense – even the smallest things. Make sure the answers to any questions you ask satisfactorily address any concerns that you have. Lastly, if you aren’t 100 per cent comfortable that a transaction or matter you are handling is legitimate, terminate the retainer. Don’t let the persistent demands of an insistent client push you into something you are uncomfortable doing, no matter how sad or urgent the story is.

3 Responses to “The red flags of an email scam”


  1. Elaine M. Forbes McCallum says:

    This alert is helpful.

    However it reinforces my surprise at the statement recently in the O.R.s that the Law Society indicates that privilege attaches to unsolicited email. This would require one to read, and print unsolicited email from unknown sources.

    Daily I get emails “attorney needed for collaborative law settlement” which I had been marking spam and deleting. I am now being told I need to log these for the unlikely event that they are legitimate and the other side turns up in my office.

    I can not see any reason why anyone with a legitimate legal issue should not be required to make an appointment and attend at the office and why it is considered inappropriate to ignore anyone who sends an unsolicited email. Even if they are not a fraudster if they can not be bothered to put down their iphone or blackberry and focus for a half hour on their problem then the lawyer client relationship is doomed.

    Of course I do not publish my email or put it on cards to prevent this sort of thing but it still seems to get picked up somehow anyway

    (even though I am berated by opposing lawyers “to join the 21st century” and publish my email)

    On one hand lawyers are being required to obtain picture Id from elderly ladies who no longer drive, have never had a passport and one has beein dealing with for decades while on the other hand there are apparently lawyers taking files from people who have not been referred to them by a credible source, they don’t know and have never met in person.

    Right now I can hear the ladies in my office trying to talk a doctor who needs a document notarized that she has to sign her receipt because she is paying in cash. The lady is saying she doesn’t need a receipt. Of course because she is paying in cash she is considered to be suspicious…… Even though I know where she lives and where her husband works and what she and her husband and her child look like and she is a doctor.

    It seems we are creating these problems for ourselves by focusing entirely on form and not substance. Get a copy of their licence good. Get to know the client — irrelevant. Or so it seems to be communicated to us.

  2. Mary Boyce says:

    I agree 100% with Ms. Forbes McCallum. Who makes up these constantly proliferating, foolish rules? I can’t help thinking that it is someone without enough to do or without experience in life (and certainly life in a law office) or both.

  3. Stuart Friedman says:

    I am a U.S. lawyer, but I can’t help but agree that our so-called ethicists are partially responsible for creating vulnerabilities. My duty to promptly disburse client funds on requests pits me against one of the obvious responses which is to reserve a long term incubation period when you cannot be assured of the validity of payments.

    Banks (at least in the U.S.) are beyond useless. I asked the question already knowing the response about how to verify that a check was not counterfeit and received a completely inaccurate response that once it cleared I was golden. You know that the employee would have lied about the response if called to the mat and more importantly the bank’s contract would allow them to deny the acts of their agent. I suspect a court would hold that it wasn’t there problem even in the face of knowledge.

    What floored me in that situation (my check was good and I never had a problem) was the fact that when I asked the bank to help me out by putting an extended hold on the check and they refused. It would have been interesting because the bank took a “without recourse” endorsement from me and I know that they would have tried to say that they weren’t bound by it.

    Ms. Forbes Callum’s responses points out the another problem. The Law Society’s/Bar Association adherence to antiquated procedures rejected by the rest of the business world makes us vulnerable to practices and higher business costs that other businesses have long jettisoned. I can’t speak to who makes these rules in Canada, but I think that these ethics boards should be required to have a designated number of members from small firms, who are computer literate, and have real case loads. I suspect that would stop people from suggesting that you have an ethical duty to save your spam.

    I know this is a belated response, but the State Bar of Michigan just linked to this page.



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