Do scam emails annoy you? If everyone targeted by an email scam spent just a few minutes messing with the scammers, we might make it not worth their while to continue. Plus, it's fun. Here's how.
I am an attorney and have my email prominently displayed on my website. This means that I get a certain amount of spam and also the inevitable scam emails. In the old days, it was the typical Nigerian 419 scams but in the past few years, the scammers have tailored their approach to lawyers. They go like this:
An email arrives, usually with a mismatched sender and a blank or bulked "To:" The subject line is usually simple as is the body. See one (of two) I got yesterday.
Now, I know this is a scam and I could delete it and move on with my life. But why spend 3 seconds and have no fun when I can spend 5 minutes (cumulative, over a few days) and have a lot of fun? I opt for fun. Plus, it's for a good cause.
To this email, I always reply "Yes." No more, no less. Yes, I handle breach of contract cases. I don't even sign the email.
To that, I then get the longer email which tells me how the sender has a contract with a business right around the corner from me and that they are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars and simply want to hire me to collect the money. The scammers find a huge business nearby on Google and even dummy up some documents to make it look like there is a contract. But the documents are never on the forms of the defendant – they are purchase orders created by the "Client." I have done this dance about a dozen times now and can tell you that several of the "defendants" were large companies that had their own purchase orders – or would have, if the process was real.
Now, there is an ethical dilemma. I can't actually send a retainer agreement to the scammer because I don't want to actually enter into an official relationship with them. So, when they ask for a retainer, I just keep asking for more documentation. Do you have a contract? Yes, they do. Do you have a purchase agreement? Why, yes. Do you have a contract acknowledgement? Again, yes. It's amazing. I can invent a form that doesn't exist in real life and they can make something with that caption, print, scan and email it to me immediately. Clever folks, these scammers.
I'm guessing they are running so many of these scams that they lose track of who has sent who what. Eventually, it happens. I get an email from the proposed defendant – saying they are aware of the claim and that I represent the scammer and they want to pay. What is my address?
I give them my "Detroit office" address. I find an abandoned house – not that hard to do in Detroit – and send them that address. I personally like the Ransom Gillis House but I hear they are restoring it so I may have to change that soon. I then receive a tracking number and can watch the Fedex as it leaves Montreal (it is never sent from the US) and travels across the border to Detroit and then as it bounces off the bad address.
I then get an email from the scammer – with whom I still have no official relationship since I never agreed to represent them and I also never provided them with a retainer agreement – saying that Fedex claims my address is bad. What?! How can that be? I am sitting in that very office right now. No one knocked! Try again!
Before you feel bad for our poor out-of-country scammers, keep in mind that my office address is on my website, right next to my email. They are just running so many scams they cannot keep any of them straight and they haven't got the 30 seconds it would take to figure out what my address really is until after they have invested the money to have the international Fedex package sent.
A day or two later a package shows up. One that has clearly had a rough time as it bounced around Canada, Detroit and finally made its way to my office. Inside is a counterfeit money order or cashier's check. I take the check, scan it and email it to the bank it is purportedly drawn on and so far I have a 100% success rate. That is, 100% of them have been counterfeit.
The scammers are hoping I will deposit the check into my client trust account and then wire them two-thirds of the amount of the check, keeping one-third for my fee. Yes, if the check below was real, I would be getting over $216,000 for having read and sent a couple of emails. This law thing is really paying off!
A few lawyers have fallen for this. They are told by the bank that the funds will be available in so many days and they wire the funds before the bank calls them back to let them know the check has been kicked back as counterfeit.
This check has been modified (by me) since I do not know if the names or numbers the scammers used were real. So the payor's name was longer, as was the name in the Memo line and the routing numbers etc. I have several to choose from but I always thought The Bank of Nova Scotia had a romantic sound to its name.
After I get such a check, I get an email from the scammer, asking me if I have received their money. "No, I have not received any money." This is true, by the way. I have received a counterfeit check but it has no value.
At this point, I have gotten silence and I have also gotten threatening emails. "We know you signed for the funds. If you do not send us our share forthwith, we will go to the authorities." I kid you not.
I email them the phone number of the local police department and also for the FBI. I tell them to start calling. Then, silence.
I know most people are inclined to ignore these emails, or the phone calls from "Rachel" at "Card Services." I get that call at least once a day, sometimes twice. I dial "1" to get a live operator and then mess with them for a few minutes until they hang up on me. The point is that 99% of the people out there ignore the calls and the emails and it leaves the scammers plenty of time to work on ripping off the 1% who answer or respond. If we raised that 1% to 5 or 10, we might be able to waste enough of their time to make these endeavors not worth their time.
But if not, it can still be a lot of fun.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.
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