Fraud Poses Unique Challenges to Attorneys and the General Public

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Fake legal firm websites, stolen attorney identities, phony clients with debt cases that resolve miraculously fast: these are all tactics used by scammers to steal money from the public and attorneys alike.

Here are some recent examples:

• A California case involved scammers who stole the identity of a retired Maryland attorney to create a bogus website and defraud the owners of a Cancun timeshare out of $71,000.

• The San Francisco County District Attorney’s Office recently announced felony charges against a former California attorney who was disbarred in 2021. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office alleges that the suspect continued to illegally operate as an attorney after his disbarment.

• The State Bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) recently announced the seizure of the practice of a man with 22 aliases and no law license. He brazenly attempted to represent clients in Southern California courthouses, where he preyed on Spanish speakers looking for legal assistance. He was charged with multiple misdemeanor counts related to the unauthorized practice of law, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office charged him with multiple related felonies.

The public can use the State Bar of California’s website to check that a California attorney is in good standing, active, and not suspended or disbarred. Consumers can also use the attorney search feature to check that contact information they may have for an attorney matches what is on the State Bar profile. No record of a person as an attorney, or a different State Bar number, phone, email, website or address are all red flags for fraud.

“Whether you’re a member of the public or a licensed attorney, basic precautions can help you avoid being victimized by scammers who use the legal system to rob others of their money, often with devastating impacts to people’s lives, reputation, and legal standing,” said George Cardona, State Bar Chief Trial Counsel. “A little bit of time and care can save a lot of heartache.” Attorney identity theft is just one of the types of cases handled by the unit of the State Bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel assigned to pursue the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). UPL is a crime. People who present themselves as able to practice law but are not authorized to do so can do significant harm to the public.

It is not just consumers who need to ensure the people they are dealing with are legitimate. Attorneys can also be victims of fraud and should take the same advice in checking the credentials of people they meet who claim to be California-licensed attorneys. A scam targeting attorneys pointed out in media reports is a fake client who reaches out to an attorney asking for debt collection representation. The lawyer contacts a fake debtor and receives a check fairly quickly, which the lawyer puts in his client trust account. The fake client asks for payment from the attorney, receives it, and soon after the debtor check bounces. The attorney is out whatever he paid, and the scammers are long gone.

What can you do to try to protect yourself from fraudulent actors posing as attorneys?

• Ask for the attorney’s State Bar number.

• Look them up on the State Bar website to see if their license is active and whether they have any history of discipline.

• Check that the address, phone number, email and website listed in correspondence matches what appears on the attorney’s profile on the State Bar website.

• Call the phone number listed on the attorney’s State Bar profile to make sure you are dealing with the correct attorney.

• Make sure to get your agreement in writing, as well as receipts for payments you make.

• Be wary if someone requires cash payments.

• Keep a paper trail. If you don’t have a bank account, use another monetary option, like a money order or cashier’s check, but be aware that you cannot stop payment on a cashier’s check or money order.

• If you have already made a payment, a California attorney must provide you an accounting of your bills. Anyone who refuses or neglects to do this is suspect.

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