By Simon Cousins and Michael Deparini
A recent press release issued by the State Bar of Texas cautions: “Individuals have been scammed by people who set up a fictitious law firm website touting estate planning and other legal services in the Houston area. The scammers mailed letters to elderly people claiming they were owed an inheritance. The website included fake attorney names and photos and bios stolen from legitimate law firms.”
A California Bar Journal article says: “The plague of fraudsters posing as lawyers or suggesting they are licensed attorneys to scam immigrants is widespread.”
An FBI Public Service Announcement states that lawyers’ identities are being used for fake websites and solicitations and warns all attorneys to “be on the alert to this scam.”
Fake law firms are not new, but legal consumers’ reliance on and trust in the internet is causing a proliferation of fake lawyer websites. Website scams, which impact a variety of legal practice areas, employ tactics that may include identity theft and brand hijacking of legitimate lawyers and firms.
Civil and legal issues regarding immigration and the public funding of legal services raise timely questions as to whether some of the most vulnerable seekers of legal services will increasingly go online to find affordable legal assistance, increasing their risk of falling prey to fake lawyers.
In this article we will examine several examples of how fake lawyers create fraudulent websites, the risks to consumers and law firms, as well as some factors that help to mitigate risks to legal professionals and legal consumers. While the scale of this article is limited, our goal is to increase awareness and discussion to address this serious and growing problem.
“It is a key function of the legal profession to protect the public by maintaining strict ethical and competency requirements in order to qualify to practice law. As consumers turn to the Internet to find legal representation, it is essential that they can trust they are in fact dealing with a licensed lawyer.”
—Martha Barnett, former ABA President and Partner at Holland & Knight
Consumers increasingly are using online methods to find legal services, with many employing internet search engines. FindLaw’s analysis of legal consumer behavior found that “consumer use of online sources increased from 19% to 28%,” and for those “respondents who first go online in search of an attorney, most cite search engines such as Google.” Given the continuing upward trend in the online purchase of services, it would be reasonable to think those numbers have already grown and will continue to do so.
The decision to hire a lawyer may come at a particularly stressful time, such as when a person is facing a lawsuit or criminal charges, after an injury, or during a foreclosure. For the elderly and other vulnerable populations, the process may be particularly challenging. Immigrants, facing language barriers and deportation fears, have long been susceptible to the unauthorized practice of law.
According to the State Bar of California, “In some Latino communities, immigration consultants often advertise their services as notarios públicos. Consumers can be confused by this title because, in some countries, notarios have training similar to lawyers and can perform legal services. In California, however, notaries public are not lawyers. Notarios take advantage of this confusion to demand fees for services they are not legally allowed to offer, defrauding consumers of large amounts of money in the process.”
A study by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which regulates solicitors and law firms of England and Wales, reports that not only are reports of bogus law firms growing in number but they “increasingly use online methods to conduct activity.”