Who falls for e-mail scams?

For those of us who have to use shovels to get rid of e-mail spam, we’re used to seeing get-rich-quick schemes by the hundreds. Whether from Nigerian princes, wealthy widows, estate executors, or soldiers looking to smuggle cash back into the US, these messages all have one thing in common: a plea designed to tempt people to get something for nothing. But of all the sophisticated e-mail targets hit in this shotgun approach to bunko, one might assume that attorneys would be especially difficult to hoodwink. As Houston’s KHOU reports, that’s not the case — and one victim has reacted in a predictable manner:

A successful Houston lawyer says he fell for an elaborate Internet scam that ended up costing him $182,500. …

It all began when Howell received an email from a company, 8,000 miles away, that wanted him to legally pursue four of its U.S. customers who owed it money.

“The email said this is a Hong Kong company and we would like to retain you as counsel,” Howell said. “And they gave me the customers names for a total debt of about $4 million.”

The Hong Kong company he was corresponding with had a Web site, and its customers were all legitimate U.S. companies with Web sites, Howell said.

How did the scam work? The conspirators sent a forgeries of cashier’s checks for over $300,000, supposedly compensation from their creditors. They told Howell to deduct his fee, and then wire the rest back. Now, while attorneys do handle these kinds of transactions, usually they would work directly with attorneys representing the creditors, or the creditors themselves, in handling the cash. The kind of arrangement presented by Howell’s clients should have raised red flags immediately, and Howell should have contacted the supposed creditors to determine the legitimacy of the checks.

Howell wound up wiring over $180,000 back to the scammers before finding out that the checks were forgeries. That amounts to a fee of 50% or more, which seems a little greedy on Howell’s part as well. Does he blame himself for getting scammed? Not exactly:

Now out of $182,000, he has filed a lawsuit against Citibank, and Sterling banks alleging the institutions were negligent.

Howell played back an automated message from his bank stating the check went through.

If Howell’s entire effort at due diligence amounted to checking an automated teller system to see whether the check was genuine, the fault isn’t with Citibank.