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.

Categories: Fraud Prevention