We know we’re not the first to say it, but there is no doubt it bears repeating: email scams pose a threat to us all, both personally and professionally. With the economy getting better but doing so slowly, many businesses are still not back to where they want to be. Even businesses that are rebounding want to push their growth higher to make up for lost ground. Given that climate, no one wants to pass up a new business opportunity. Sometimes, however, you need to do just that. What seems to be a promising, new opportunity may well be a trap where someone is using emails to separate you from your money.
Our firm, like your business, is not immune to the threat. We regularly receive scam emails that make their way past our firewall. Recently, the following email came in:
Am in need of a business/contract litigation lawyer to handle a major case for us, your legal services is highly needed. Do get back to me asap.
Do we want additional clients? Of course we do. Major cases? Even better! The only problem is that there is no major case for us to handle in conjunction with this type of email. This is a classic scam; a quick search of Google confirms that to be the case.
The scam begins by attempting to convince the recipient that there is big money to be made by doing business with them. In this kind of case, a response to the initial email will often be followed by an offer to pay a large retainer. Perhaps the offer will include a pledge that the funds will be wired directly into your account as soon as all of the account information is provided. Instead of transferring the funds as promised, the scammers instead attempt to make an electronic withdrawal and empty the account.
Other versions of the scam involve sending a check in amount far exceeding that which was originally discussed and then asking that a refund be issued immediately. The original check always bounces or is dishonored and the unsuspecting customer loses a large sum of money. Our favorite variation is the email from a purported surviving relative of some deceased former king or president of a troubled far away country who needs our help to get a vast fortune out of their former homeland that they are willing to share in exchange for our assistance. All they need is access to our bank account and some seed money and riches beyond our imagination will be ours!
While some of you may say, “that can never happen to me,” don’t be so sure. A lawyer we know received an email seeking representation. The email’s author provided a fair amount of detail – company names and addresses, individual names, etc. – all of which seemed to check out in that there were in fact companies with those names and people working for those companies that matched the individuals identified. The “new client” stated that he understood that a retainer would be required and, due to the urgency of the situation, would agree to wire the retainer to the lawyer’s bank so that work could start immediately on this time sensitive project. The lawyer then provided the bank information. Thankfully, another attorney in his office thought something sounded fishy and did a quick Google search and found out that the request for representation was a scam. The lawyer quickly contacted his bank and closed the account before the scammers could hit it. Catastrophe was averted, but it was a very close call.
The moral of the story is that no matter how much you need to grow your business, be wary of new email customers that seem too good to be true. Even when you think you are being exceedingly careful, it may not be careful enough. For example, we are aware of a situation where a victim of one of these scams refused to send the requested refund until they were assured by their bank that the original check had cleared. Once the verbal confirmation was received, the refund was issued. After the refund was transmitted, however, the check was dishonored and the company was out several thousand dollars. The company later learned that the check “clearing” was not recognized by the bank as an assurance that the check was good and could not be dishonored. Of course, the victim of the scam blamed the bank while the bank blamed the victim. Ultimately, an agreement was reached by the parties, but only after both sides retained lawyers. Resolving a bad situation like this is expensive and no bargain – even if the victim gets some or all of its money back.
Thankfully, Google is a very useful tool to check out email contacts and find out if they are likely a scam. If you search the name of the sender and add any other details that are contained in the email and include “scam” as a search term, chances are you are going to find out the truth behind that fabulous opportunity.
Nobody is immune from these kinds of scams. You need to pay attention, do some research and trust your gut instinct. As the old adage goes, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.