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Lawyer dodges divorce scam

A Roanoke lawyer managed to avoid trouble recently when he spotted some questionable details in divorce papers sent by a would-be client.

The incident is the latest in email-based scams targeting lawyers in Virginia. Many turn out to involve counterfeit checks.

The lure for attorney Eric Spencer arrived by email late on Friday, Nov. 20. A client was looking to enforce terms of a separation agreement against an ex-husband.

Spencer advised the woman to call and schedule an appointment.

“The initial contact looked good,” he said.

Monday morning brought a longer email with attached pages from what purported to be a Texas separation agreement and divorce decree. The subject line said, “TREAT AS URGENT.”

The “wife” explained she lived in Rhode Island now and her ex-husband, a medical practitioner with the U.N., was in “your jurisdiction.”

The purported separation agreement, dotted with typographical errors, stipulated to a promised lump sum payment of $672,900 in 2013.

“Thus, I request your firm’s legal service to enforce the court order compelling him to remit balance owed me,” the email read.

The client also said she would call after receiving a retainer agreement, but she claimed a hearing-related medical condition would make it difficult to speak by phone.

“The red flags went off,” Spencer said. The arrangement “smelled of fish.” A lump sum support payment seemed unlikely, “even in Texas,” he said.

He checked online court records in Texas. There was no such case as the one identified in the purported divorce decree.

Spencer also checked the names of the lawyers listed. One was a judge who was on the bench when the purported decree was signed. Spencer said he found no record of the other name as a Texas lawyer.

Spencer said he simply cut off contact with the sender. “I just let it go,” he said, putting the email in his “scam” folder with other suspicious inquiries.

Lawyers in Virginia and elsewhere have been targeted with similar scam attempts. Lawyers who get strung along generally end up getting a fat check in the mail, payable to their firm. They’re urged to quickly deposit the check and wire the client’s share to an offshore account.

Of course, the check is a clever counterfeit and the wired money is long gone by the time the bank shares the bad news. Even worse for the hapless lawyer – most professional liability insurance does not cover the loss.

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