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DALLAS — Clever con games apparently aren't just the stuff of movies.
Three Texas lawyers were all targets of a sophisticated scheme using distance, the Internet and the quirks of American law to steal money. While two of them escaped, one did not.
It started with a cashier's check over $100,000. It was the most enticing piece in a con game designed to deprive ethical lawyers of their money.
"It's funny," said Raul Loya, an attorney. "You would think that lawyers would be smarter, but it's funny they fall victim."
All three attorneys lived in different cities and worked at separate firms, but they all got the same e-mail purporting to be from prospective clients in Hong Kong.
"I got back, I looked at the check, looked authentic [and] deposited the check," said Sheldon Goldstein, an attorney.
The e-mails said the client needed help in collecting money from an American client.
"I've met tons of my clients that are from out of state and out of the country," said Richard Howell, the last attorney to fall victim to the scam. "That's not unusual at all."
"They spend a lot of time setting hook before the start reeling you in," Loya said.
The fake company has a web site and an officer signs a contract with the lawyer for his services. Documents arrive via courier.
Then, in each case, a check arrived for over $100,000. Goldstein told the company his retainer was only $3,000.
"She wrote back and said just take out your $3,000 and send me the balance," he said.
That was exactly what he did.
Howell, of Houston, deposited his check for $182,000 in his firm's trust account, too. His bank assured him the check was real. He recorded the conversation.
With the money in their accounts, attorneys are ethically bound to send it on to their clients quickly. After being guaranteed the check was good, Howell wired everything but his fee back to Hong Kong. Goldstein waited for the check to clear, but it was bogus.
"There were a whole slew of these fake cashier's checks that were going around this part of the country," he said.
Howell's bank suddenly changed its mind. The check for $182,000 was no good. The Hong Kong company couldn't be found. He had been taken. A secret service agent told him he wasn't the only one.
"He's got several law firms involved with over $23 million that have been taken away from," he said.
Loya never did anything with his $389,000 check.
"This is as bogus as a $3 bill," he said. "... I think what this tells us is that anyone can fall victim, anyone."