With the myth that all lawyers are rich, some scammers are looking to cash in.
The harsh reality is some attorneys struggling to make ends meet may be tempted to take a deal that could end up ruining their career.
Sarah Portiss, a consumer protection attorney in Hartford, focuses on foreclosure defense. Joseph Sastre is a general practice attorney out of Bristol. Between them, the pair have nearly 25 years of experience.
You wouldn't think they'd be prime targets for scammers, but apparently, they're exactly what crooks are looking for.
"This is really scary for attorneys in Connecticut, and all over the country,” Portiss said.
It typically starts out just like any normal attorney-client relationship would, with an email.
“These emails you get really aren't that far from the norm. There's plenty of legitimate cases that I've taken on that have started pretty much the same way,” Sastre said.
They say it continues like this— The potential client will ask the attorney for help getting some money back from a business partner or a spouse.
That’s not unusual, but when the attorney reaches out to the person who owes the money, they're very quick to fork over the dough.
“In these cases, it seems like the minute you tell them ‘okay, I’ll help you,’ all of sudden they'll email you and say now that you're on the case, he knows you're serious so now he wants to pay up,” Sastre said.
Within a day or two, the check for the money owed, usually hundreds of thousands of dollars, shows up, and while the pace is unusual, it can still be tricky to spot the scam.
That's because the check paper is real; the money, not so much.
"They're convincing. There's print on both sides. They have all of the security features like any other check that would come through my office,” Sastre said.
This is when the real problems start. The client will pressure the attorney to send a portion of the money right away, even before they cash the check.
Sastre said they try to work quickly so you don’t have time to think, and ultimately figure out the ploy.
"If you send out a check the same time you deposit their check for $185,000, your check will get paid to wherever it is that you're sending it no problem. The check they paid you, of course, will bounce,” Sastre said.
Getting scammed might not only have severe consequences on the attorney’s wallet, they could also suffer serious professional recourse.
“Attorneys are heavily regulated. The money in our clients’ funds accounts are heavily audited and if we aren't careful and can justify where the funds come from and where they go in and out of those accounts, we can be disbarred,” Portiss said.
“You're in a predicament because now you've given away your clients’ money. It's not yours so you might be tempted at that to try to cover it with your own money or find some other way to disguise the fact you did this because if something like that comes to light you can lose your license,” Sastre said.
After receiving these types of scam emails monthly for the last five years, the pair has a few tips to avoid being scammed.
“Usually the tenor of the email and the speed at which the story develops is the real giveaway if you're not already convinced that its fake,” Sastre said.
“I think the advice is just be very careful. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. That old adage,” Portiss said.
Sastre has given the checks to his bank for educational training purposes.
As for catching those behind this scam, Sastre says the FBI would investigate since it's an interstate crime, but the problem is he's never heard of a complaint taken to a level of investigation, let alone any resolution.
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