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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Scammers continue to target attorneys with check fraud

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Ryutaro “Rudy” Hirota had his suspicions from the get-go. In early February, someone claiming to be an executive from a multinational Japanese electronics company contacted his firm saying they needed help obtaining a visa for an employee to work at a U.S. subsidiary.

fraud check
The check appeared legitimate but turned out to be fake

Although his firm represents U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese companies, Hirota found the solicitation “kind of strange,” because the company Yokogawa is huge and should have in-house counsel to handle the matter themselves. What’s more, the person claimed to be the vice president of marketing, couldn’t read or write Japanese despite supposedly having an office in Tokyo and refused to talk over the phone.

Despite quickly cutting off communication, a check for $350,000 soon arrived at Hirota’s San Francisco office – the carrot in a scam that continues to target the legal community.

Hirota believes that had he deposited the check – ridiculously large for the services to be rendered and phony – the fraudster would have attempted to steal money from his client trust account.

“There’s no company on the face of the earth that would write a check of that size without having a retainer agreement,” he noted.

Scams like the one Hirota encountered have been such a persistent problem, that the Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC) issued a January 2011 ethics alert. COPRAC recommends avoiding such solicitations altogether. If not, do your research and hold all funds deposited in your trust account until after they’ve been cleared.

Hirota suspects that in his firm’s case, the fraudster planned to write back saying a mistake had been made and ask for a refund of the overpaid amount.

Upon further investigation, he discovered the routing number of the check was not right. There was also notice on Yokogawa’s website from 2014 stating that someone had tried to impersonate its officers. He notified the company and Japanese consulate.

A lawyer for 27 years, Hirota said he had the experience that helped him avoid being a victim. But he worries about attorneys who are just out of law school and hungry for work.

“I know there are probably some attorneys out there just hanging their shingles out and wouldn’t know any better,” he said, who noting amount of the check exceeded the supposed fees Yokogawa would incur for the visa by about $343,000.

“It’s quite laughable but it they weren’t aware of these little things, it might seem quite legit,” he said.