Avoid Being Scammed: How to Spot Fake Clients

productivity-guide-cover

Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

Just as many people have been suckered into sending money to a nameless Nigerian prince, it turns out that even lawyers are not immune to internet scams, and sometimes the lure of a big payout will hook even the most cautious of practitioners.

To wit, I recently received an email in my business email account from Miyoko Kazuo. In its entirety it reads as follows:

Hi Counsel,

My name is Miyoko Kazuo. I am a contacting your firm in regards to a
divorce settlement with my ex-husband Mr. Naoki Kazuo who resides in
your jurisdiction. I am currently on assignment in England. We had an out
of  court agreement (Collaborative Law Agreement) for him to pay amounts
ranging from $648,450.00 plus legal fees. He has only paid me amounts
ranging from $148,450.00 since then. I am hereby seeking your firm to
assist me in collecting the balance from him. He has agreed already to
pay me the balance but it is my belief that a Law firm like yours is
needed to  help me collect payment from my ex-husband or litigate this
matter if he  fails to pay as promised.

Yours truly
Miyoko Kazuo.

Nothing about this email is particularly startling at first glance…especially given some of the weird items that show up in my inbox from actual potential clients. But as a solo practitioner practicing mainly contract law, I was surprised by both the dollar amount and the fact that it regarded collaborative divorce, which is something I have never done.

After a simple search for the name “Miyoko Kazuo” on Google, I found that it is the same as the Nigerian scam, but dressed up with language and dollar amounts more likely to get the attention of lawyers. Luckily, a fellow practitioner had already investigated the situation and explained how the Miyoko Kazuo scam works.

How to Avoid Getting Scammed

Although many of us can probably recognize these sorts of scams outright, it is not always clear that a legal inquiry is fraudulent. Even those situations involving high dollar amounts from foreign countries can seem legitimate when directed to the right people. So to help keep you from being sucked into scam designed to hit attorneys, here are a few things to keep in mind when you get an inquiry via email or your contact form.

  1. Search Google for the Names in the Message. Due to the sheer volume of information available on the internet, and the fact that these scams would not be sustainable if not sent to multiple people, someone else likely will have encountered the same strange legal inquiry if it is fraudulent. Aside from Miyoko Kazuo, you may also see a number of other names and titles, some of which have been cataloged at Attorney Email Scams.
  2. Look Out for Misspellings. Spammers and scammers are generally bad spellers and bad grammarians, and their messages read like bad Craigslist postings. Not all email you receive from prospective clients will be error free, but more than a few misspellings combined with improper verb conjugation or singular-plural problems is typically a strong indicator.
  3. Check the Area of Law. I focus on contracts, and only advertise my practice as relating to contracts. Although many people do not discriminate between attorneys when they have a legal problem, if the individual knows enough to know the divorce involved collaborative law, s/he should be able to tell whether your area of practice makes you a decent choice. This fellow is a patent lawyer who received a variation of the Miyoko Kazuo scam. Why would he be a good choice for that type of work?
  4. What is the Requested Service? If the request is simply to collect/receive money from one party and then transfer it to someone you have never met, odds are it is a scam. Be particularly wary of any situation that requires you to send money via wire transfer (e.g., Western Union). There are very few protections on wire transfers, and once the money has been sent there usually is no way to get it back.
  5. Ask for a Second Opinion. If you still aren’t sure about whether an inquiry is legitimate, ask some colleagues. Odds are that someone will have either seen a variation of the communication if it is a scam, or you can get a consensus from them that it is potentially legitimate and you should ask for more information.
  6. It’s unfortunate that as attorneys we would need to be on the lookout for these sorts of tricks, but particularly in harder economic times, the lure of a big payout is sometimes hard to overlook.

    Please let us know if you have had any experience with these sorts of scams and what the names and proposals were. It would be nice to build a database of a sort to which attorneys could refer when they have questions about the validity of inquiries.

    (photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/toasty/1276202472/)

Subscribe

Get Lawyerist in Your Inbox, Daily

Current Articles
Current Lab Discussions
  • Thanks for the heads up about this. We have many firm-related emails, so we’re seeing a lot of spam that reads, “Dear Counsel,…” to begin the message. I’m actually seeing a few of the Nigerian prince scams as well. You’d think that they would give it up by now, knowing that most of the western world has been alerted to the dangers.

    • noland

      I’ve gotten two different ones but the tip off for me is when they say “in your jurisdiction”. Both time bogus.

  • Justin McLeod

    I too have received a few dubious emails with “Counsel” sprinkled in the subject heading and body. Lawyers do need to be on the look-out, even for “real-life” spurious clients, but that is another article…

  • Anne Hansen Gathje

    I get the “collaborative law agreement” e-mails every week, along with ones about collecting non-divorce judgments. They always include the phrase, “who resides in your jurisdiction.” I’m surprised anyone falls for this particular scam, but have seen one that is more sophisticated.

    A personal injury attorney I know was sucked into a scam where a guy claimed he had a personal injury settlement in the works (I think with a Canadian insurance company) and wanted representation to finalize the deal. It was the right practice area, so the attorney was naturally interested. The attorney spoke with someone claiming to be an insurance adjuster (someone who knew the lingo very well) and the fake check looked like it came from a major US bank. Fortunately the attorney’s bank caught the scam before the attorney forwarded any money to the fake client.

  • I had to check my archives on this one. I have the same letter from 6 different sources – only the name and amount changed. I’ve even seen this letter on Q&A forums like LawGuru.

  • Quick follow-up: It’s not just e-mails. I received a phone call this morning with a similar request.

  • Dustin Manwaring

    These are all great suggestions. But, it may also be a smart idea to use different methods of publishing your contact information. For example, consider eliminating your email address from your website, which can limit some of the phishing ability, and instead have a link that automatically pops up the visitor’s email application if the visitor clicks a contact or email button. Or, consider using a service like Dialawg which requires the user to register and use an emailed code to contact you.

    These kind of measures will not eliminate the possibility for scams and, of course, you don’t want to make it too difficult for clients to communicate with you. However, I think considering some alternative ways of making yourself available through online contact information may help discourage scams and can provide some added protection.

    • Are you describing a “mailto:soandso@email.com” type link? I’d imagine phishing programs could read that just as well. They don’t read the page you and I see when we open it up, but rather the source code, what you see if you do Right Click, View Page Source.

  • Dustin Manwaring

    You may be right about the “mailto:soandso@email.com” and how phishing programs work, but I use a link to my Google Voice as well as my Dialawg account and neither my phone number nor email shows up in the source code. So, there are ways to make yourself available while avoiding some of the phishing capabilities commonly used.

  • Jason Hutchison

    I had a similar situation in which an individual sent the following to a real estate agent, who then contacted me to represent the (purported) buyer in the deal. Even sent a bank statement that looked (but wasn’t) real:
    >>>
    I am interested in this property MLS: xxx1xxx [redacted so as not to embarrass/ identify the agent]. I will like to retain the service of an attorney in this transaction to handle the financial part of this purchase and also to represent my interest. Please recommend an attorney for me I do not wish to forward my deposit to a third party before closing on the property. Because of time difference, it meant not be possible for me to reach the attorney on the telephone during business hour. I will like to ask you to contact the attorney on my behalf or send me their email address so that I can introduce myself to them regarding this transaction. Attached is my bank statement.

    Below is the information you need before you can write the purchasing contract.
    >>>>
    There were about a dozen emails back-and-forth from the buyer the the real estate agent, it looked like a foreign buyer looking to buy vacation property on a lake in Minnesota. I’m assuming this would have wound up being a standard forged check to the trust account that the bank discovers about a week after we wire funds from the trust account to the scammer.

    I googled it and found an almost word-for-word letter on a site reporting real estate scams.

  • When I read this post it gave me the sense you were trying to steal my clients. I get come-ons like this all the time. I suspect that they are finding me through my AVVO listing. I am just a consumer bankruptcy lawyer. Nothing else. At first I was surprised to receive messages for collections and divorce. I get a few of these each week. I mark the message as junk and try to block the sender. Unfortunately they keep coming through. Aren’t lawyers supposed to know better than to fall for this garbage?

  • JDSlacker

    I received a copy of a similar scam. I inquired with follow up questions. They responded with some shaky answers that included some bogus addresses. A quick google search of the addresses confirmed that it was a scam (addresses connected to completely different business).

    Google is a dear friend in sniffing out these scams. Great article.

    George

  • I am from Brazil and I have received the same email/information from Myioko Kazuo see below:

    Dear Counsel,
    >
    >My name is Miyoko Kazuo. I am contacting your firm in regards to a divorce
    >settlement with my ex husband Naoki Kazuo who resides in your jurisdiction.
    >I am currently on assignment in Dubai. We had an out of court agreement
    >(Collaborative Law Agreement) for him to pay $648,450.00 plus legal fees. He
    >has only paid me $148,000 since.
    >I am hereby seeking your firm`s assistance in collecting the balance from
    >him.
    >He has agreed already to pay me the balance but it is my belief that a Law
    >firm like yours is needed to help me collect/enforce payment from my
    >ex-husband or litigate this matter if he fails to pay as promised. Kindly
    >Reply:
    >
    >Your’s truly,
    >Miyoko Kazuo