This is a cautionary tale. I now get so many Nigerian scam invitations by email that it’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t so common. I get one or two every day. But a while back, before they were so ubiquitous, I came pretty close to falling for one.
Any lawyer who is or has been a junior partner at a BigLaw firm knows what it’s like to be hungry for business. The prospect of single-handedly bagging a big institutional client is just too attractive to pass up. It can cloud your judgment. I woke up one morning and checked my Blackberry or iPhone (can’t remember which at the time) and saw that I had an email from a company headquartered in China. I couldn’t tell from the email what their business was, but the email was professionally, if stiffly, written and devoid of obvious grammatical defects.
With some variation, most of us are now familiar with the fictional come on: they’re a foreign company that is owed a sizeable, but not unreasonable, amount of money by an American customer. They’re looking for counsel to assist in collecting the sum. It is anticipated the customer will ultimately pay what’s owed, but litigation may be required and, besides, they need to have counsel in the United States to handle commercial issues which arise from time to time. Most important for my purposes, the email said right up front that they were prepared to pay a retainer. Would I please contact them?
Looking back, the “it’s too good to be true” light was blinking all along, but, remember, I was hungry for a big institutional client. Of course I responded, asking for details, trying to set a call, etc. I looked up the company on the internet and the website looked legit and exactly like what I expected the website of an Asian fabricator and exporter of miscellaneous nuts and screws and other parts would look like. The kind of solid, reliable, bill-paying institutional client every young commercial litigation partner wants in his or her book of business.
Within a day, I had an exchange of correspondence, scheduled a call and agreed upon rates and terms of engagement, including a $10,000 or $15,000 retainer (can’t remember now). I had also performed an internet search on the American customer/defendant. Here, again, the website looked like the legitimate website of a legitimate middle market American company that purchases metal nuts and screws and other parts from a Chinese supplier and incorporates them into shelving and dividers that are sold to other larger companies for use in their warehouse facilities. Nothing sexy, but by all accounts a legitimate, going concern.
Looking back, I should have been more attuned to the little hints along the way. The name of my contact, for example, vacillated between “Kevin” or “Kelvin” in the emails. While it took several tries to have a successful telephone call, I was ultimately passed by a Chinese-sounding receptionist/operator to a man who identified himself as “Kelvin.” He was brief and slightly difficult to understand, but sounded like the real-deal. We advanced the ball and there was good news from the client’s perspective: the American customer had agreed to pay what they owed (around $273,000, I believe), but I would facilitate the transaction, acting as an escrow of sorts. The check would be sent to me. I would deposit it in the firm’s client trust account, retain the retainer amount (again $10,000 or $15,000) and wire the balance to my new client. I would then be “on retainer” and prepared to handle their North American litigation needs which were sure to arise in the future.
I became sure that something was awry about a week after the initial contact, but before the check arrived from the American customer. I received another, completely separate, email from a different Asian company also looking for representation in a similar collections-type situation. I looked this “new” company up on the internet and, you guessed it, they also sold screws and nuts and other little parts. In fact, although the company had a different name and contact information, everything else about the website was identical to my new “client.”
At this point, I just wanted to see how it played out. I never in a million years would have gone through with the scam, but I was curious how these things are done. At what point do they realize their “mark” has caught on and throw in the towel?
At about the expected time, I received a Federal Express envelope from the correct address in New Jersey containing a completely legitimate-looking cover letter, complete with “wet” signature and a check drawn on the corporate account, payable to my law firm, for $273,000. Still curious, I placed a call to New Jersey, to the person who purportedly signed the letter. I was amazed when the call went through and still more amazed when the person who answered was a mature woman with what seemed to be an authentic New Jersey accent who was willing to talk with me, not just about the details of the check, but also about her day and plans for the weekend (it was a Friday afternoon). I sent the “client” an email reporting that I had received the check, was depositing it, and would wire the money as soon as the customer’s check had cleared. (“Kelvin” had suggested I wire the funds as soon as I received the check, but he didn’t press too hard on this point, probably concerned I would smell a rat.)
I asked our office manager to deposit the check in our client trust account. When she came back I asked, “Any problems?” “Nope,” she said (I had not yet told her I suspected a scam). A few minutes before close of business, though, she came back into my office. She was ghost white. She’d received a call from Wells Fargo and, surprise, it turned out the check was fraudulent.
I took her through the details leading to the check, including my phone calls with China and New Jersey. She was intrigued, but looked at me strangely, as if to say, “You weren’t really going through with this?” I also called the local FBI field office. Because it was late on a Friday I had to leave a message. No one called me back.
I’ve since read that lawyers–big firm lawyers and solos–have been stung badly by these scams over the years. They give in to the fictitious client’s request to wire the funds before the incoming check has cleared–only to learn later that the check wasn’t real. What I found most astounding about the experience myself was how coordinated and detailed the props and communications were.