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Dear US lawyer: I'm overseas and need your help (and trust account)

In a twist to the classic Nigerian scam offering to share a vast fortune over the Internet, a sophisticated ring found a way to mine lawyer trust accounts and come up with gold.

By Staff writer / September 9, 2013



It is well known that Nigerian scam artists have built a lucrative cottage industry using Internet ploys to raid the bank accounts of gullible Americans.

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Foreign solicitations replete with hilarious misspellings and grandiose offers of easy money have become a clichéd staple of e-mail junk files. 

But now, a recent case from central Pennsylvania reveals an entirely new level of sophistication by these criminals. Their target this time: law firm trust accounts.

The scam involves hiring a lawyer to help recover funds owed by a North America-based company from a real estate transaction, a divorce settlement, or a lawsuit claim.

The fraud begins with an e-mail letter from a prospective client who claims to be overseas and in need of legal help to collect the debt.

To disguise the Nigerian origin of the scam, the group used Asian client names and bank accounts in Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and China.

The lawyer is offered a generous fee for his or her efforts in recovering the owed funds.

What the lawyer will not know is that he/she is now in the center of an intricate web set up to mimic all the steps of a genuine debt collection process.

Within days of the lawyer’s involvement, a check for the owed amount is sent to the lawyer. The “client” has asked that the lawyer deposit the proceeds into the law firm’s trust account and then – after subtracting the generous fee – wire the remaining funds to the client’s foreign bank account in Asia.

Here’s where the fraud gets interesting. A careful or suspicious lawyer might want to verify the authenticity of a check that has just been deposited into his firm’s trust account.

In anticipation of that suspicion, the Nigerian scammers hired a forgery specialist to create a perfect copy of a real company check including a company phone number and the name of a representative of the company.

When the cautious lawyer calls the contact number on the check, the individual on the other end of the line identifies herself as an employee of the company and vouches for the veracity of the check. In reality, she is part of the scam.

Satisfied, the lawyer then gives his bank instructions to wire the client’s “recovered” funds to the client’s foreign bank account.

The fraud is now complete. Another member of the criminal group immediately withdraws the funds from the foreign bank account.

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