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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Beware of online scams

scamA lawyer receives what appears to be a legitimate solicitation e-mail from a prospective client, often based in another country. The terms of a relationship, including a fee agreement, may be negotiated. The lawyer then receives what appears to be a valid domestic cashier’s check, purported to be a settlement check from a purported debtor, from a reputable bank. After the money is deposited in the lawyer’s client trust account, the “client” asks that the funds be wired to a foreign bank, less the fees.

The cashier’s check was fraudulent and the lawyer is left holding the bag.

This scenario is replayed as part of a sophisticated Internet scam that often targets collection lawyers. In addition to winding up with an overdrawn bank account, victims can face State Bar discipline and damage to his or her reputation. In order to help lawyers avoid being taken in, the bar’s Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC) has issued an ethics alert describing both how the scams work and how lawyers can protect themselves.

The scam leaves the lawyer appearing to have retained a client, triggering various ethical duties governed by professional responsibility rules. The ethics alert offers both a warning and suggestions for how lawyers can protect themselves.

“If it is too good to be true, it usually is,” the alert concludes. “Hitting the delete button may be the best course of action for the attorney, not to mention those caught up in the cascade of adverse consequences of a successful scam.”