Email scams – Everyone’s a target (even lawyers)

Gone are the days of the “Nigerian Prince” emails, scams so very transparent you wondered how anyone could fall for these things.  Horrible grammar, preposterous situations, incredible sums of money waiting for you just to help out a poor Prince in need…  These days, email scammers are getting more sophisticated, more clever, so you need to keep your guard up.  Here’s what recently happened to me:

A request for legal help came in off the firm’s website.  Someone needed an attorney to handle an employment dispute.  Simple enough, it was forwarded to me.  (Although I don’t represent employees, I will screen calls and refer them out if there seems to be a case.)  The individual, I’ll call him Mr. Smith, didn’t leave a phone number, so I emailed him back, asking for a phone number to contact him.

A few days later I get a response email, a long one, detailing how he was sexually harassed at work by a female supervisor, he complained and was terminated last December.  The company, a Fortune 500 company, gave him a severance payout of 2 years pay, $120,000.  But they never paid as promised.  Mr. Smith attached his offer letter, termination letter, separation agreement and a string of old emails from the company saying payment was being processed.  The documents looked legit – company letterhead, the HR Director was on LinkedIn, separation agreement language was standard legalese.  But something felt off.  I tried googling Mr. Smith, looked him up on LinkedIn, and got nothing.  He was giving me too much information, too soon.  And why would someone wait over 5 months to take action on $120,000 owed to them?  So I again asked him to call me, saying I needed more information before I could even send an engagement letter, which he was now asking for. 

That evening, I was having drinks with an employee-side employment attorney, and was telling her about this.  If things checked out, I’d be referring this to her.  But I kept saying, things just felt off, and I felt it was a scam.  How would this be a scam, she asked.  I wasn’t sure.  I kept thinking it would be something like I’d ask for a retainer, he’d send two to three times the amount, then ask for the overpayment to be sent back. 

Well, it didn’t take long.  The next morning, I received the email that might have well have said “SCAM” in the subject line.  Mr. Smith told his former employer that I was representing him (I was not) and they would be paying out the severance payment immediately.  But… (there’s always a but, right?) Mr. Smith would be out of town, so he instructed them to send the whole $120,000 payment to me directly, I could take out my fee, and send him the rest. 

My first instinct was to hit ‘reply’ and insert some choice words and a message along the lines of “I wasn’t born yesterday, buddy”.  Maybe add some select emojis, if I knew how to use emojis, that is.  But, I needed to be lawyer-like, and instead responded with “I do not now, nor have I ever represented you.  Do not send any funds.”  I called the company’s legal department, and they were already aware this was out there.  I wasn’t the first, I’m sure I won’t be the last. 

So what’s the moral of the story?  Be on guard and trust your instincts.  If you’re unsure about a “too good to be true” business deal, take your time before diving in.  Don’t make promises until you know all the details.  This was a very targeted scam – aimed specifically at employment attorneys.  I am very glad I never sent Mr. Smith an engagement letter, which would have created an attorney-client relationship. 

There have been other email scams targeting HR and payroll personnel.  Most involve someone pretending to be the CEO asking for a wire transfer, or employee direct deposit or payroll information to be sent to them immediately.  One scam directs an employee to purchase gift cards and send the CEO the gift card codes.  Sometimes the email is from the CEO’s “personal” email, other times it looks like the CEO’s business email, but if you look closely maybe one letter is off.  Again, these are targeted scams – the scammers know who they’re sending the emails to, and are hoping a busy employee isn’t looking too closely or questioning the boss.

The FBI has an internet scam division.  If you feel you have been targeted by an internet scam, you can file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3),  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also tracks phone and internet scams, and keeps a list of popular scams on their website.