Foreign scam artists recently tried to use a Richmond attorney and a Chesterfield dental supply office to pull off a clever con.
Ken Lee, corporate counsel for Benco Dental, said he’s heard from 75 to 100 lawyers across the country who have been solicited in the scheme, which is targeting the national dental supply company and attorneys in the cities where it has offices.
A Richmond attorney in November alerted the Virginia State Bar to the scam, which uses phony checks to entice victims to wire money.
Lee said the scammers pull the names of Benco’s locations from the company’s website and then email attorneys in each city. Pennsylvania-based Benco has a showroom on Alverser Drive in Midlothian, so the scammer, when targeting that location, used a Richmond attorney.
“They just picked us,” Lee said. “I wish they hadn’t.”
The scam is an elaborate version of a classic rip-off, said Virginia State Bar ethics counsel James McCauley. The current incarnation works like this:
The scammer, pretending to be a representative of an actual dental supply company in England, emails the attorney, alleging that Benco didn’t keep up its end of a million-dollar contract to provide dental supplies. The scammer requests that the attorney represent him in the matter.
Shortly thereafter, the scammer emails the attorney again to say that Benco has agreed to a settlement, often before the attorney has does any work on the case. The scammer then mails a check – supposedly from Benco – to the attorney. He asks the attorney to deposit the money in his escrow account and immediately wire the proceeds, minus a fee, back to the British company.
McCauley said the scammer might use different company names or a different scenario to work the scheme. For example, one claimed to be trying to collect late alimony and child support payments and sent a local attorney a forged foreign court judgment that appeared to support the claim.
The end game is always the same, though: The scammer wants the attorney to deposit the forged check and wire the money before the bank figures out it’s a sham. Ultimately, the check will bounce, and the attorney will be out the cash, McCauley said.
McCauley said the scam should be easy to spot. In the case of the Richmond attorney who reported the scam, his secretary spotted a red flag when the would-be check from Benco in Midlothian was postmarked in Canada.
“Collections practice just doesn’t work like that. To me, that’s a big red flag – it’s too easy,” McCauley said.
McCauley said lawyers should be leery of clients they’ve only talked to via email. He advised lawyers to do some independent research to verify the claims – even if the client provides documentation that looks legit. It’s also a good idea to wait until a check officially clears before wiring funds.
The state bar did not identify any of the affected attorneys in the Benco incident, but McCauley said he has been contacted by at least 10 Virginia attorneys about a similar scheme. At least two Virginia attorneys, including one from Richmond, have lost tens of thousands of dollars in a scam of this nature in the past couple of years, he said.
“I think lawyers are seeing these solicitations in their inboxes every day,” McCauley said. “They come in different sizes and shapes. … You can’t expect to collect 25 percent on a $3 or $4 million debt or claim without doing anything.”