This crime didn’t require a computer – Lawyers Warned to Be Wary of Client E-Mail Scams

Howell says he thought he was running the right traps before accepting the client, by checking out the Web sites of the U.S. companies from which his prospective client wanted him to collect, by confirming that the client had a Web site, and by checking with Citibank on the legitimacy of the $367,500 check before wiring out the funds. Most of his communication with the Japanese company executive was through e-mail, but the client did telephone him a couple times. Howell says he never called the client. Nothing raised a red flag in his mind, until it was too late.

“I talked to my bank, and they said if it’s been paid, you are good. That’s all you need is a verification,” Howell says.

Even the e-mail approach wasn’t unusual. Howell does commercial litigation, but he also does collections. He says he gets referrals from other lawyers through e-mail and receives e-mail contacts from a link through the firm’s Web site. While he usually meets his clients in person before they sign retainer agreements, that’s not always the case, particularly when the client is from outside Texas.

Howell says he’s more cautious today, but he might have prevented the loss by insisting on meeting with the client, face-to-face, before agreeing to take the work.

Only if the scammer wasn’t willing to invest a few grand for the big payout. A lot of people pride themselves on being able to detect liars in person, but they’re usually wrong. So a guy with an accent and a suit and an expensive briefcase would have arrived and talked with Howell, and pretty much the same thing would have happened. The email connection makes the scam a little more difficult to trace, but it could have been done almost seamlessly in person as well.

What interests me is the due diligence. A lot may depend on exactly what Howell asked Citibank and exactly what the clerk there said in reply — did he just ask whether a heck with that number had been issued, or also amount and payee (and did the clerk check those things, or only the number)? If the scammer has figured out a way to know the details of a large number of bank checks in close-enough-to-real-time, this becomes a difficult scam to break.


One Response to “This crime didn’t require a computer”

  1. David Says:

    I get these scammer e-mails in my mail every day.

    Every once in a while, one strikes me as funny because of the audacity, or the name of the person, or the spelling… Anyway, I started writing back to these people just to poke fun at them, but in a way that sounds like I am falling for the scam.

    You might get a kick out of reading my responses (sometimes the scammers even write back). I post them with the original names and e-mail Subject lines (to be searchable, in hopes of alerting other potential victims) at a blog I created just for my sarcastic responses, called Scam and Eggs.

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