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/)