When I started investigating this problem, I thought I might find a few fake law firms being used as fronts to perpetrate fraud. I now realize that I profoundly underestimated how widely this attack vector is being used. In fact, I doubt if the legal profession realizes what it is up against.
There are a number of reasons why fraudsters would set up fake legal firm websites or pose as lawyers. First of all, scammers really need to get your personal information to begin their scam. One way to do this is to offer you free legal advice if you simply fill out a form on their website. The form will ask for personal information which can then be used to scam you.
The victim, visiting the fake website, will see that it is well-designed and even includes the biographies of the lawyers who work for the firm. The pure believability of the site lowers suspicion. Many law firms have pages for sending personal information in order to begin a case. Once these criminals get your email or phone number, they will contact you and agree to take you on as a client. They will likely promise you a favorable outcome. However, they tell you that you should send them a filing fee so that they can begin the paperwork. If you follow their directions you will never see that money again and no paperwork will be filed.
The above scam is quite basic. It is used to fool people who have a built in motivation for getting the help of a lawyer and who may, therefore, be willing to overlook any inconsistencies they may find on a law firm’s website because they want to solve their problem as quickly as possible. The website below is an example of such a well-designed site.
In this case, it appears that the criminals took over the name of a law firm that existed until 2011. They then tried to perpetrate the old inheritance scam. In this scam, you, the victim, have had a distant relative die (they will always have the same surname as yours) and it has been found that you are the only heir. You will get this information in an email that may bear the logo of the law firm it is purportedly sent from. The sum of the inheritance is considerable, often into the millions of dollars. You are then told that you will get most of the inheritance if you pay for the legal work that must be done. Of course, you will probably check to see if the law firm that sent you the email actually exists. If you find a legitimate-looking page like the one above, it may be enough to convince you to proceed. That’s the scammer’s hope, anyway.
Recently this basic scam has been upgraded in a number of ways. In some cases, a person from overseas contacts a legitimate law firm about some problem they have “in your jurisdiction”. They are told that a settlement has been agreed upon but that they need a law firm to arrange for the receipt and forwarding of the funds to a foreign account.
Of course, the law firm will ask for documentation, and it will be sent and appear to be authentic. The documents will have the name and contact information for a person working with the company that has agreed on the settlement. When contacted, all will seem normal. In a short time, the law firm will receive a check, often for hundreds of thousands of dollars, by FEDEX. The check will look legitimate, like the one received by a New York law firm.
Since the check has a correct routing number, it will be accepted by the bank. The money from the check will appear in the firm’s account. At the same time, the person who is to receive the money from the check has contacted the firm explaining that they need the money transferred immediately because of some emergency. Thinking that the check is valid and seeing that it has been deposited in the firm’s account, the firm may go ahead and send the money. Only days or weeks later will they learn that the check was a counterfeit and the firm has been bilked out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This scam template also uses fake law firm websites to validate other spurious claims. One targeted law firm may be told to contact another law firm, a fake one, to validate a transaction. Searching the internet to gather information on the validating firm will find a well-designed website with contact information and pictures of real lawyers, cloned from another valid law firm site. The phone number will either lead to a voice mail or to a scammer who will validate the fake transaction. In other words, contacting the fake firm will only further ensnare the victim firm.
Such scams are widely perpetrated but there seem to be a few hot spots. In the U.S., Texas, Florida, and California have been heavily targeted. Texas has been scammed by fake estate planning firms which target the elderly. California has been targeted by fake firms offering advice to legal and illegal immigrants. Their websites are often in Spanish. In Florida, a variety of fake law firm scams are on the rise
In the United Kingdom, fake law firm scams are reaching epidemic proportions. In the last month alone, according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority website, scammers in the UK have used the names of actual solicitors or firms over 20 times to try to trick victims into sending them money. The scams are believable as they use the actual or similar names of real solicitors and real firms to perpetrate the scams. Here is an example.
There is a legitimate law firm called Crystal Law. It maintains the following website.
And here is the fake website that pretends to be Crystal Law.
The format seems to be copied from the website of the Odaman & Taskin Law Firm located in Istanbul, Turkey.
While researching this post, I found two other fake websites using the same format.
I found that some of the images on these sites were stolen from another law firm site, Harcourt Chambers, and linked to a number of other sites, some of which Microsoft has determined to be dangerous. On its site, Harcourt Chambers notes that, “it has come to our attention that a number of bogus emails have been sent to individuals which purport to have originated from Harcourt Chambers or individuals from Chambers.” Many of these could be traced to a scam look-alike site and any correspondence from it should be either ignored or reported to the authorities.
After finding a number of these scam sites, I reported them to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I received a reply (“We will look at your information alongside other relevant information we hold in order to consider the next steps”) and hope to work with them to expose the scammers. However, due to the massive prevalence of such scam sites, the task will be daunting. My suspicion is that I stumbled upon several of these sites before they had a chance to be monetized. The scammers may have taken over firms that have closed but did not, or could not, remove the original websites. I will update this information when necessary.
(Update 10-22-18: I recently received the results of the investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority which, in part, read;
I confirm that a scam alert has now been published on the SRA website at http://www.sra.org.uk/consumers/scam-alerts/2018/Oct/philip-johnson-batuhan-ian-blight-russel-gate.page
They will now attempt to get the fraudulent sites taken down.)
But why are law firms such tempting targets? That’s easy. They can give legitimacy to any scam. However, more importantly, information on law firms and lawyers is readily available. Most states have a searchable database for all of its bar members and firms. The database gives information such as the following from the Florida Bar website: Bar number, mail address, office phone, personal phone, fax, email, personal bar URL, vCard, practice areas, and the firm’s website. Below is the scammer’s dream page for setting up a scam.
A potential scammer can find law firms specializing in the areas they are interested in, such as estate planning or real estate. They can then clone an appropriate website and begin their scam.
A few days ago (June, 8), the Better Business Bureau received a complaint about a fake law firm that scammed a victim out of $5,000 by pretending to represent a buyer of a timeshare. The fake law firm even encouraged the victim to go to their website. They also told the victim to check out the firm’s lawyers on the Idaho State Bar website. Yes, they were using the state bar site to legitimize the scam. The fake website is still up and, you would think that it was an obvious fake from some of the odd language on the home page, such as, “WE HAVE A LOT OF EXPERIENCE AND DON’T HAVE TO DO A BUCKET OF RESEARCH” and “ARE YOU HAVING ANY PROBLEMS BUT YET NOT CONSULT TO ANYONE ?” Or how about this puzzling banner.
In researching this particular scam, I found more fake sites than I could ever report on. Not all of them were fronts for fake legal firms, but many were. According to a 2017 report by Webroot, 1.4 new phishing sites appear every month and are online for less than 8 hours. The short time-span makes it impossible for the site to be blocked and scammers can easily direct victims to new, unblocked sites. Fake law firm sites will be persistent through simply tweaking the URL. As the victim of the timeshare scam noted, “the problem we found was that by the time we got the website shut down (a herculean effort) a new one popped up with a new host.”
On the surface, the situation may seem hopeless. In fact, the responsibility of avoiding a scam comes down to the individual. Don’t rely on online communication or phone calls to validate a law firm. Check with authorities or meet with the firm representative in person. You may still become a victim, but the chances for this will be significantly reduced.