You know those e-mails out of the blue that start “We would like to engage you to handle our $1 million legal matter”? From our friends over at Lawyerist.com comes a description of what happened when Steven Chung, an L.A. tax attorney, actually took the bait and pursued one of those invitations.

Chung’s story is headlined, “Dear Lawyers, if a client you never met sends you $350,000, it’s probably a scam” — and of course it was a scam, although the tale ends happily, and Chung avoided getting ripped off.

Set-up for a scam

Here’s how it unfolded: The “client,” supposedly located in an Asian country, asked for representation to file a visa application for an executive who needed to work in the U.S. Chung asked for a retainer in advance; the potential client asked for an engagement letter.

In the meantime, Chung started digging around, and several things didn’t check out:

  • although the company was apparently real, its purported e-mail address was a Gmail account that anyone can open for free;
  • the “executive” had a LinkedIn profile, but had only four connections, none of whom were connected to the company;
  • other websites did associate the executive with the company, but again, the potential client could have set those up.

With his Spidey sense tingling, Chung turned down the work and thought that would be the end of the matter. Instead, the client dangled some more bait: $350,000 that Chung would receive from one of the company’s customers “from an unpaid invoice,” and from which Chung would be able to deduct his fee. At that point, Chung writes, he “shifted from wariness to the full-fledged realization that this was a scam.” Chung decided to ignore the communication.

Then, a check for $350,000 arrived in the mail. It certainly didn’t check out:

  • The return address was from California — but the envelope bore non-U.S. postage.
  • The check was drawn on the Bank of Nova Scotia, though the business had no presence there (and many check scams seem to use Nova Scotia banks).

Temptation…

Chung writes that it was “hard to ignore my name attached to the receiving end of a $350,000 check,” but if he had cashed it, it “could immediately be returned for insufficient funds, at which point either the sender would make an excuse, or possibly accuse me of stealing money and try to blackmail me. Or the check would be placed on hold by the bank and in the meantime, either the sender or the potential client would ask that I repay them immediately before the check cleared. Assuming I had a spare $350,000, that money would be transferred and likely never be seen again after the check bounced. Worst of all, I could have transferred existing money in my trust account, which can result in ethics violations.”

Chung didn’t fall for it, but he kept the check as a memento.

How to avoid the peril

Last year, we wrote about an ethics opinion from the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, which identified an ethical duty to exercise “reasonable diligence” in avoiding internet-based scams like this. That is certainly an opinion to take to heart, because of the potential for client harm, as well as the obvious downside to you and your firm.

Chung did well to unmask the scam. You, too, can avoid being a victim. We agree with Chung’s advice:

  • Just say no, and don’t respond to unsolicited requests for legal representation.
  • If you do respond, “make sure that their documents match their stories.”
  • “Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions.”
  • “Finally, and most importantly, do not send any money until all checks clear. Don’t be afraid to wait for an extended period.”

Although Chung did not opt to report the scam, you should consider doing so if you find yourself faced with one. You can report suspicious e-mails to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov).