FBI warns lawyers: Beware of ex-wives bearing checks

Not their own ex-wives, mind you, but a new twist on old e-mail scam

You might think lawyers would be too smart to fall for these shopworn e-mail shenanigans. Not so, according to the FBI, which this morning issued a warning to barristers everywhere to be on the alert for a new wrinkle.

First, here's how the FBI describes the classic counterfeit check scam against lawyers:

Scammers send e-mails to lawyers, claiming to be overseas and seeking legal representation to collect delinquent payments from third parties in the U.S. The law firm receives a retainer agreement, invoices reflecting the amount owed, and a check payable to the law firm. The firm is instructed to extract the retainer fee, including any other fees associated with the transaction, and wire the remaining funds to banks in Korea, China, Ireland, or Canada. By the time the check is determined to be counterfeit, the funds have already been wired overseas.

And the new version goes like this:

The fraudulent client seeking legal representation is an ex-wife "on assignment" in an Asian country, and she claims to be pursuing a collection of divorce settlement monies from her ex-husband in the U.S. The law firm agrees to represent the ex-wife, sends an e-mail to the ex-husband, and receives a "certified" check for the settlement via delivery service. The ex-wife instructs the firm to wire the funds, less the retainer fee, to an overseas bank account. When the scam is executed successfully, the law firm wires the money before discovering the check is counterfeit.

So who are these innocents who managed to make it through law school, pass the bar, hang a shingle and yet still don't know enough not to conduct high-stakes financial business with people they've only "met" through e-mail? One example would be Houston lawyer Richard T. Howell Jr., who while not ensnared in the current round of flimflam, did fall victim to a similar e-mail scam in 2008.

"I'm a capital 'D' Dumbass," says Howell in an interview with Texas Lawyer.

He may be right, but, as reading the story will show, it's not quite that simple. The article does a swell job of answering most of the natural questions that arise from the naturally skeptical when wondering how in the name of Nigeria anyone still falls for this stuff. It's an interesting read.

In the meantime, here's a message for you lawyers: Keep your guard up and your greed in check ... and most of all, keep hitting that delete button.

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