Our previous story should be a lesson to all about how an innocent-enough pastime, Scrabble GO, can lead to the loss of hundreds or thousands of dollars. (In fact, I wish that story were concluded, but the fact is, some folks are too stubborn or have diminished capacity to understand.)
This next story, ironically, takes place around the same time. Unlike Part I, the names haven’t been changed. This story is about me.
I received an inquiry from Herman Weeks:
Hello, I am writing this letter to request your legal assistance on a loan default matter. I am the lender. I would appreciate you contacting me, so I can send you details and the agreement.
This lead has been sent to you as a direct result of your subscription to Lawyers.com and Martindale.com, which generates leads from numerous high-traffic consumer websites throughout the Martindale-Avvo Legal Marketing Network.
Great! The form of the inquiry wasn’t unusual, and it came via a source that takes a little effort to access. We’re not talking straight-up spam, here, as the bot has to go through the lawyers.com or martindale.com website. So, I telephoned Mr. Weeks, and we discussed his situation, which involved a promissory note from Richard Stone, a Vermont resident, which had gone unpaid. In preparation of the call, Mr. Weeks sent me an email with details of the transaction, which didn’t sound much different from any other foolish loan gone wrong:
Thank you for your response to my inquiry.
Attached is the loan agreement between me and a friend, Richard Stone, who originally lived in Toronto before returning to Vermont. On February 28, 2018, I loaned him $500,000 USD with the agreement to receive a profit, the purpose of the loan was to expand his business.
This loan agreement includes provisions for an installment payment plan (principal plus interest) in the amount of $137,500 quarterly after one year. So far, I have only received one payment of $150,000 on March 1, 2019.
I have made so many attempts to collect the balance, I think my failure is due to my unwillingness to take legal action. That’s why I have contacted you for help. I want you to send him a demand letter and give him 30 days to make the payment, and if he fail to comply then you can file a lawsuit. Let me know what you charge per hour, and the retainer required in advance.
We virus-scanned the document. No problems detected. I viewed it. It looked legitimate.
When I called, Mr. Weeks had an accent from the Indian subcontinent, but it wasn’t overwhelming, he spoke fine English, and the conversation didn’t raise any alarms. I emailed Mr. Weeks our standard engagement terms and requested a retainer. He emailed me back:
Attached is the signed Retainer Agreement. I will send you a cheque in certified funds in the amount of $1,500.00 as described in the agreement. I will also contact Mr. Stone and advise him that all matters relating to the debt should be referred to you, as I no longer wish to deal directly with him.
If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me.
Herman Weeks, CPA
Private Wealth Counselor
Weeks Fiduciary Services
200 King St W #1500 Sun Life Centre,
Toronto, ON M5H 4H2
email – HRWCPA@HERMAN-WEEKSCPA.COM
437 867 5753
About the time of his email, I (thankfully) received an email from Martindale-Hubbell saying that there was a scammer on the loose, and guess what? His name was Herman Weeks. I did a quick search of the internet and found that each of the individual items in Mr. Weeks’s signature block were verifiable, but taken as whole, they simply didn’t add up. We shut down all contact. We ran a complete scan of our computers for viruses. And, we prayed there hadn’t been a data breach.
The good news is, everything was still secure (an advantage of having everything in the cloud rather than on a local server). The lesson was learned, and I sent Mr. Weeks one last message:
Dear Mr. Kingen,
The jig is up.
You see, I’d searched the phone number and discovered it didn’t belong to Mr. Weeks at all. (If you search for it now, you’ll discover it doesn’t belong to Mr. Klingen, either, any more, or if it ever did.)
What went wrong?
As a member of the bar, I hear about attorneys getting scammed pretty much all the time. Here’s a sampling from our local Bar Counsel, Michael Kennedy. Most attorneys are now hyper-aware of wire scams, spam, phishing, and the like, and most have policies in place for dealing with suspicious emails and calls. Yet, for all this awareness, for all our education and knowledge, we are still human. Sometimes, things can slip through the cracks, and one of the hallmarks of becoming a scam victim is regularly conducting confidential business with strangers – something private attorneys do by definition.
Certainly, had the check bounced or had wire information been requested, my suspicion would have been piqued. Perhaps I should have been suspicious of the accent, but I have plenty of clients with accents. Apparently, it’s a common scam that the client is out-of-state, but we have many out-of-state clients. Maybe one wants to think that people don’t make bad business deals, but it happens all the time, and usually with less documentation.
In the end, we never were at a point where things truly endangered our firm or client moneys. But, we were headed that way.
Not long after the Weeks event, we received another inquiry. Another referral. Another out-of-state client. This time, it was the purchase of some hospital equipment. This time, we weren’t fooled. Something intuitive said to check into the contact a little more, and we went so far as to call the real person whose name and credentials had been spoofed. We weren’t the first people he’d heard from.
True, it’s not very hard to avoid getting scammed. The downside is that the time and energy we spend vetting prospective clients takes away from the time we can spend serving real people with real problems. That’s an “access to justice” issue I very seldom hear discussed.