Thursday, March 5, 2009

Nigerian Email Scam Targets Lawyers & Their Client Trust Accounts reports that a new variation of the standard so-called Nigerian, 419, or advance fee email scam has been targeting lawyers. Phony clients allegedly seeking to collect funds from stateside customers contact a U.S. attorney seeking collections assistance. As soon as the attorney has accepted the representation, the customer immediately agrees to pay (how often does that happen!?), often in two partial payments to be timed one right after another. The check then received will usually be a forged cashier's check, payable to the attorney, and from which the attorney is told to deduct his fee (which the client may not be too concerned about the amount of, another red flag).

The author suggests that attorneys avoid becoming victims by:
  • Researching clients using Google and other sources before accepting the matter
  • Contacting any attorney or other party that has supposedly referred the matter to the lawyer
  • Accepting overseas, especially Chinese, clients only if their story makes logical sense and upon the payment of a retainer
  • Responding to any initial inquiries not known to be fraudulent, but which are suspected to be, making sure to point out clearly that an advance deposit against fees/costs is always required
  • Taking any suspected fraudulent check to the issuing bank for analysis - they will often be able to identify small details that make the forgery obvious
  • If a large payment is received upon behalf of a "client", even if by a cashier's check, holding the funds at least two weeks for clearance before disbursing the funds
A typical solicitation looks like this, and may even track this language precisely:
Dear ,

Request for Legal assistance

This is an official request for legal representation on behalf of XXX Co.Ltd.
We are a textile company with principal business in garment manufacturing and trading.
We are presently incapacitated due to international legal boundaries to exert pressure on our delinquent customers and we request for your services accordingly. We got your contact information from the Online Lawyers Directory as a result of our search for a reliable firm or individual to provide legal services as requested.
After a careful review of your profile as well as your qualification and experience, we are of the opinion that you are capable and qualified to provide the legal services as requested.
On behalf of XXX Co.Ltd, Please accept my sincerest appreciation in advance for your willingness to render your services as we look forward to your prompt response to our request.

Thank you.
Another example:
Attention Counsel,
XXX CO., LTD. is a manufacturing company with its head office in Japan, and branches all over Asia continent. The management of XXX CO., LTD. requires your legal representation for our North American delinquent customers. We are looking for a reputable attorney to represent us in North America in order for us to recover monies due to our organization by overseas customers, and as well follow up with these accounts. In order to achieve these objectives a good and reputable law firm will be required to handle this service.
We understand that a proper Attorney client agreement must be entered into by both parties.
Your consideration of our request is highly anticipated, and we look forward to your prompt response.
Yours Truly,


June 2009 update: The State Bar of California has issued a fraud alert to California attorneys on this topic:

MEDIA CONTACT: Diane Curtis 415-538-2028

San Francisco, May 29, 2009 —

The State Bar of California today issued a warning to attorneys to beware of international Internet scams purporting to hire U.S. lawyers to collect large debts.

Despite efforts to publicize the scams over the last year, Bank of America Vice President Blossom Dunng said attorneys continue to be targeted. In four separate cases since the start of the year, Bank of America attorney customers lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from counterfeit checks.

"As bank officials say, 'Know who you're doing business with,'" said State Bar President Holly Fujie. "If you deposit a check for $500,000, you had better have a clear idea where that money is coming from."

The scammers often use the names of real companies to gain credibility and use e-mail addresses that seem to have a connection to the companies. The State Bar itself has received such bogus solicitations:

"This is an official requisition for your legal consultation services on behalf of _________," one e-mail sent to the bar said. "We are presently incapacitated due to international legal boundaries to exert pressure on our delinquent customers in USA and we request your services accordingly."

"We got your contact information from the state of USA lawyers Directory as a result of our search for a reliable firm or individual to provide legal services as requested. After a careful review of your profile as well as your qualification and experience, we are of the opinion that your [sic] are capable and qualified to provide the legal services as requested."

If an attorney responds, the process begins and at some point the attorney receives a legitimate-looking check - sometimes even what appears to be a cashier's check - for the supposed debt. The attorney is asked to subtract his retainer and then send a check for the rest to the client.

In 2006, one attorney had a $2 million loss. This year, Dunng said, checks from the attorneys to the phantom clients range from $75,000 to half a million dollars.

Dunng, treasury services manager who handles all 8,800 Bank of America Client Trust Accounts, said the customer, not the bank, is responsible because it is common practice for the bank to make deposited funds immediately available to good bank customers.

"Attorneys should be the last people to fall for these scams," said Fujie. "Be careful!"

Scott Wilson, FBI special agent in Cleveland, says scams change so quickly that it's very difficult to keep up with them. Still, law firms that have been victimized or contacted as part of what looks like a fraud scheme should report the incidents. If a law firm has lost money in a fraud scheme, contact the local FBI office, says Wilson. If firms or lawyers have not lost money but believe they have been targeted by scammers, they should make a report to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at

To view a story in the California Bar Journal about attorney victims of Internet scams, go to, and check the California Bar Journal archives for July 2008.

Founded in 1927 by the state legislature, the State Bar of California is an administrative arm of the California Supreme Court, serving the public and seeking to improve the justice system for more than 80 years. All lawyers practicing law in California must be members of the State Bar. By May 2009, membership reached more than 222,000.


Anonymous said...

Just got the exact language email directed to our firm in Portland, OR.

Thanks for posting this - we wouldn't have replied, since it smelled of the Nigerian scheme, but it is a new variant so we are happy to know about it!

Nancy Smith

David C. Winton said...

I received the exact language. Played along with caution, not aware of this particular scam, though having received a number of the Nigerian variants over the years. It went so far as for me to actually receive a FedEx with a Citibank "cashier's check" enclosed for $362,400. I have to admit that when I first looked at the check, I thought it was real.

There were a number of red flags in the received document, including the origin of the envelope being from Ontario, Canada (the paying customer supposedly being a San Francisco business), the check was drawn on a Los Angeles branch (again from a San Francisco company) and the copy of the invoice that was being paid that was enclosed was issued by a Taiwanese electronics firm (my client was supposedly a mainland China textiles firm). This, of course, bieng in addition to the giant red flag of someone I've never heard of sending me a negotiable instrument for $362,400 without any protections at all, and, of course, needing the money to be released ASAP.

Citi verified that the check was a fake.