Column: Great news! A relative you never heard of left you $10 million!
Stanley Silver isn’t dumb. When he received a call recently informing him that he needed to pony up some cash to settle tax problems with the Internal Revenue Service, he hung up.
When he and his wife received a call saying their grandchild was in trouble and required urgent financial assistance, they hung up.
But the San Fernando lawyer was intrigued when a fax arrived the other day from a top Canadian law firm letting him know he stood to inherit nearly $10 million.
Pay attention to how this unspools. It’s a classic scam that the perpetrator — or perpetrators — has taken to a new level with phony letterhead, a phony website, identity theft and a whole lot of chutzpah.
It’s also a teachable moment about why so many people — often seniors — get fleeced by rackets that go to elaborate lengths to hoodwink victims.
“I knew right away it wasn’t real,” Silver, 88, told me. “But I was curious about how this worked.”
He called the man who purportedly sent the letter: Peter J. Pliszka of Fasken Law, a firm with roots going all the way back to 1863.
“I asked if he’s an attorney,” Silver recalled. “He said yes. I asked if he was a member of the bar. He said yes. I asked for his bar number. He wouldn’t give it to me.”
Silver then asked about the letter saying he may be related to an Alan Silver, who “died in a ghastly car accident in Toronto nine years ago,” leaving behind a savings account worth $9,820,000.
“In view of the fact that you share the same last name and nationality with the deceased, I solicit your consent to partner with me for the claim of this policy benefit as the beneficiary of the claim,” the letter said.
It proposed that Silver receive 45% of the funds — or $4.4 million — with the law firm getting 45% for its efforts and 10% going to “charity organizations.”
“This transaction is 100% risk-free as there will be no violation of any civil or criminal laws,” the letter said.
Silver asked how he could possibly claim such a vast amount of money when he was reasonably sure he was unrelated to the deceased.
“They told me not to be concerned about that,” he said.
Silver didn’t have the patience to pursue this further, so he hung up. Then, happily, he thought I might have some fun with it, so he sent the letter to me.
All in all, it’s an impressive ruse.
First, there’s the appropriation of Peter Pliszka’s identity. He’s a real guy, a real partner at the real Fasken, which says on its website that Pliszka is “regarded as one of Canada’s leading litigation lawyers.”
Pliszka (the real one) told me by email that he first learned about this scheme a few weeks ago from a different recipient of the letter.
“Someone has unlawfully used my name and my firm’s name, without our knowledge or authorization, to perpetrate a scam,” he said.
But it’s not just the theft of Pliszka’s name that lends authenticity to the proceedings. The scammer set up an email address and phone number that are just slightly different from Pliszka’s real ones.
The scammer also created a fake Fasken website, with a slightly different URL from the real one, that contained a fake Pliszka bio (“I have very much enjoyed working with the exciting young lawyers at Fasken Law”) and the bogus contact information.
A spokeswoman for Fasken (the real one) said the firm was “actively working with the domain registrar to have the fraudulent domain shut down.”
As of last Friday, they seemed to have succeeded. The counterfeit site was offline.
For weeks, though, anyone who thought they were performing their due diligence by checking out Pliszka online may have been drawn deeper down the rabbit hole.
Who could pull off something like this? I spent about 20 minutes on a call with the phony Pliszka, so I can say it’s someone with no qualms whatsoever about ripping people off.
Before I get to that, let’s get a clearer lay of the land.
The inheritance scam takes many guises, but the river that runs through all of them is preying on the victim’s desire for it all to be true — that there really is a pile of money literally with their name on it.
The FBI calls these advance-fee schemes, which transpire “when the victim pays money to someone in anticipation of receiving something of greater value — such as a loan, contract, investment or gift — and then receives little or nothing in return.”
Such ploys resulted in more than $92 million in losses as of 2018, the FBI says.
I have firsthand knowledge of the scam because, a couple of years ago, my wife received a notice that a relative she never heard of had died in a “ghastly road traffic accident,” leaving behind $25 million.
I followed the trail for weeks, dealing with multiple con artists masquerading as bankers and diplomats. After they assumed I was hooked, they sprang the trap: I’d need to pay thousands of dollars in duty fees before I could claim that mountain of cash.
So when I got phony Pliszka on the line, I told him I’d received one of his letters and asked how he’d concluded I may be related to the late Alan Silver.
“My team thinks there may be a genetic relationship to yourself,” phony Pliszka answered without hesitation. He didn’t even ask my name.
I asked why his team thought that. Phony Pliszka said it’s technical but, rest assured, they’re satisfied with the outcome of their investigation.
I asked why I needed to share 45% of the take with him. Why couldn’t I have it all?
“Without me,” phony Pliszka replied, “you could not claim this. You cannot do this without me.”
Surely, though, I could submit a claim on my own.
“No,” phony Pliszka insisted. “The best thing is to work with me.”
He kept asking me to provide the “reference number” on the letter I’d received so he’d know for sure that I’m legitimate — or so he’d know which particular fish had taken the bait.
I kept saying I have more questions. For example, would I have to pay phony Pliszka any money up front for his services?
“No,” he said, “I will handle everything.”
But is there a chance I’d have to pay, you know, a duty fee or something to get the money?
Phony Pliszka seemed displeased that I was cutting to the chase.
“There is a possibility,” he answered carefully, “that the insurance company or the holding bank may charge some fees.”
He asked again for my reference number. When I continued to balk, phony Pliszka said I should call back when I’m ready to proceed, and he hung up.
I called back, identified myself as a journalist and said I’d already communicated with the real Pliszka. I asked why he was trying to dupe people.
He hung up again.
It shouldn’t be necessary for me to say but obviously it is, considering the millions in losses this scam racks up every year — don’t fall for this.
Yes, it’s possible there’s a relative you never knew about who perished in a ghastly accident and left behind millions of dollars in unclaimed funds.
But probably not.
Besides, if there are such funds, the deceased’s estate likely would have found you if you’re a lawful heir.
Here’s a tip: You’ll have better luck seeing for yourself. Each state offers people a way to check for unclaimed property reported by banks, insurance companies and corporations.
In California, go to the website of the state controller’s office and run a free search for your name.
If you score any money, don’t forget to give 10% to charity organizations.