Scams Are Getting Sophisticated

I do not believe that I have a distant uncle who has left me ten million dollars. Nor do I believe that there is Nigerian diplomat who needs my help. Nor do I believe that you are vacationing in Thailand, and got mugged and so need me to wire you money.

However, I did get an inquiry from an architect from London, whom I shall refer to as “Mr. Sham”, seeking to sue a customer of his in New York City, whom I shall refer to as “The Waltons”, who did not pay him a balance of $49,000.00 or so, for services rendered.  According to Sham, the Waltons apparently engaged him, a world famous architect, to design their home in New York City. Now, Sham wanted a lawyer in New York, and found me from “the commercial lawyer list”.

In my response, I asked him for more information. I asked for a copy of the contract, an account statement, and which list he found me from. Sham’s response was a copy of a contract signed by Mr. And Mrs.Walton, a statement of account that showed a $50,000.00 prior payment seven months prior (which was labeled “deposit”), and then he mentioned “a law list from the Commercial Law League of America”.

This started to seem like it was legitimate. But it still screamed “SCAM!!!” to me. So I did a few internet searches for Mr. Sham.  I found several websites. One was some United Kingdom association of architects, with dozens of people’s names, of which, Mr. Sham was a member. I found a consumer testimonial website (much like Yelp.com) which had a handful of 4 and 5 star reviews for Mr. Sham’s work. I even found Sham’s own website, where he listed his address, telephone number, email address, and about thirty pictures of buildings he designed, with house numbers blurred out. The site claimed they blurred it out to protect the privacy of the homeowners. I decided to do an internet search for the Waltons. Sure enough, their names were accurate, and the address that our skip tracing databases showed, was the address on the statement of account provided by Sham. I did a satellite map search to ascertain whether or not the Manhattan address was a home. It was a cute little brownstone. So I even emailed Sham to ask what the building looked like, and what work he did, “our of curiosity”. He identified the building exactly.

Little by little, it started to seem more and more legitimate.

I was in Court the next morning, and when I got in, I saw a voice mail. Mr. Sham called at 5:30 AM, New York time! His message was that he wanted me to call him on his mobile phone, so he could find out how much in costs it would require to start suit. He stated that he would not pay for the initial letter and phone call to the Waltons, but he would be happy to provide costs. He just wanted an estimate. He said, rather than call him back, I could also email him if I so chose. I chose to email, and gave him a cost breakdown. He asked for a retainer agreement, so I drafted one, and sent it to him. He signed it, and even asked for our wire information, so he could wire costs.

After receiving the signed retainer, we sent out the requisite demand letter, and called the two phone numbers supplied by Sham. One was a “You have reached the Waltons.” The other was, “You have reached Mrs. Walton”, purportedly a mobile number. We left messages on both.

Three days later, we received an overnight UPS delivery from Mr. Walton. It was a letter, referencing our file number, and included a certified bank check for $49,000.00. The letter explained their failure and negligence in previously sending the check, and they apologized. I photocopied the check, and there was a visible “VOID” watermark. Could this really be the easiest sixteen grand we’ve ever made?

Still skeptical, I saw that it wasn’t drawn from any major bank, so we sent someone with the check to the actual branch itself.

Upon presentment to the bank, they actually confirmed that it looked like a valid check. They said it actually looked accurate. However, given our continued skepticism, they sent it to their fraud team, who noted that the font in which the name of the payee (our firm) was written was not the right angle, nor typeface!  It was definitely a counterfeit, and they declined to honor it.

I pondered what to do, and we ultimately decided to email Sham back, and tell him the check was counterfeit. So I did.

And we never heard anything again.

In retrospect, it was a really comprehensive and brilliant scam. I realized that Mr. Sham could have easily done an internet search on me, to figure out to name drop the CLLA. And his description of the building was dead-on, because he was looking at the same satellite map that I looked up. It still puzzles me how the mail was never returned in any way, and that there were two fictitious phone lines set up. But still, very elaborate, and I can bet that someone has fallen for it.

Timothy Wan is a partner in the law firm of Smith Carroad Levy & Wan, in Commack, New York, and can be reached at 631-499-5400 or twan@smithcarroad.com. Tim also notes that he’s won an all expense paid vacation to Bermuda, has won the lottery in Zimbabwe, and has an online only girlfriend who needs major surgery.

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