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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Lawyers falling victim to identity theft

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

It was one of those situations that lawyers dread.

In late March, Max Gerald “Jerry” Garcia got a call from a receptionist at his firm that two angry clients were there to see him and remembers thinking, “not again.”

Garcia was as shocked to see Luz and Daniel Fraire as they were to see him.

It quickly became apparent that someone posing as Garcia had taken the mother and son's money only to abandon them and their case.

“The guy was nowhere to be found,” said Garcia, a partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith in Los Angeles. “He took the money and ran, so to speak. It had been going on for some time so they came over to the office.”

Garcia and the Fraires notified police in Alhambra, where Daniel Fraire lives. Investigators discovered the imposter was disbarred attorney Gerard Lionel Garcia-Barron and arrested him April 11. Garcia-Barron, 46, pleaded guilty to grand theft on May 14, and was sentenced to 180 days in jail and three years probation.

While authorities moved quickly to stop Garcia-Barron, crimes like his appear to be on the rise.

Dane Dauphine, assistant chief trial counsel with the State Bar, said the agency has been noticing an uptick in identity theft cases targeting its members. Even so, the State Bar is often limited in what it can do.

The State Bar has no jurisdiction over disbarred attorneys, Dauphine said. If a disbarred member or a non-attorney sets up an office, the State Bar could shut it down although “most of the reports we get for ID theft are fly by night.”

“There seems to be more of this happening,” he said. “Really, it requires law enforcement to go after these non-lawyers.”

To date, the State Bar has received reports of potential identify theft involving 111 member records – incidents that can range from the more speculative, such as a member whose wallet was stolen with their bar card inside it, to the more concrete, like someone illegally using an attorney's name to send out debt collection notices. In either scenario a member's profile would be flagged so that State Bar employees know to be cautious should they receive calls or complaints about that attorney.

In 2004, the year the State Bar first started taking down dates of the reports, the agency was notified of one possible ID theft. In 2011, there were 16. So far this year, there have been 13 reports.

Protect yourself

To prevent identity theft, the State Bar does not list attorneys’ dates of birth or their prior business addresses on its website.

When an attorney's online profile is set up, the State Bar also mails them an access code which they must first enter in order to set up a password and security questions, according to Dina DiLoreto, the bar’s managing director of member records and information. Members who want to update their business address – information they are required by law to make public – must first enter their password. The State Bar recommends that attorneys never share their password and take steps to prevent anyone from gaining access to it.

Lawyers who can't provide a password must answer the security questions in order to reset it.

“If it doesn't work, we are going to ask the same questions over the phone,” DiLoreto said.

In the case of Garcia-Barron, authorities say he solicited $7,500 in retainer fees from a total of five victims whom he met with at coffee houses around the Alhambra area.

Garcia-Barron was disbarred on Jan. 29, 2011 following a default proceeding in which the State Bar Court found him to have committed 42 counts of misconduct in 14 matters. Among other things, he misappropriated client funds, repeatedly failed to perform legal services competently, failed to refund unearned fees and practiced law while suspended for failing to pay bar dues.

Garcia said he's just happy that what could have been a nightmare scenario for his firm was resolved quickly and that no one went to the State Bar with an erroneous complaint about him.

“Fortunately, no one else has come to the office,” he said.