Identity theft doesn’t just apply to stolen credit cards or social security numbers. For attorneys, scammers can steal names and even bar numbers in order to trick consumers. In this episode of The Florida Bar Podcast, hosts Christine Bilbrey and Karla Eckardt talk to Shanell Schuyler about attorney identity theft scams, what they look like, and what both lawyers and clients can do to prevent them. For victims of identity theft, they also share resources within and outside of the Florida Bar that can help attorneys recover from and report identity theft.
Shanell Schuyler is director of the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP) and Intake Department of The Florida Bar.
The Florida Bar Podcast
Attorney Identity Theft
Intro: Welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, where we highlight the latest trends in law office and law practice management to help you run your law firm, brought to you by The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Institute. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Christine Bilbrey: Hello and welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast brought to you by the Practice Resource Institute on Legal Talk Network. We are so glad you are joining us. This is Christine Bilbrey. I am the Senior Practice Management Advisor at PRI and one of the hosts for today’s show, which is being recorded from our offices in Tallahassee, Florida.
Karla Eckardt: Hello. My name is Karla Eckardt and I am also a Practice Management Advisor at The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Institute and a co-host of today’s podcast.
Our goal at PRI is to assist Florida attorneys with running the business side of their law practices. We will be focusing on a different topic each month and will carry the theme through our newsletter and website with related tech tips and articles.
Christine Bilbrey: So this month at PRI our topic is Attorney Identity Theft, and joining us today is attorney Shanell Schuyler. Shanell is the Director of the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program, known as ACAP here at the Florida Bar. She also supervises the Bar’s Grievance Mediation and Fee Arbitration Program.
Shanell has practiced commercial litigation, banking law, eminent domain, real estate and probate administration. She joined the Bar in 2007 as a senior attorney in ACAP and became the Director of ACAP in February of 2012.
Welcome to the show Shanell.
Shanell Schuyler: Thank you. It’s a pleasure for me to be here.
Christine Bilbrey: And Shanell also has the distinction of being our first returning guest on The Florida Bar Podcast that we didn’t scare off.
Shanell, we are constantly hearing about issues of hacking and scams and all kinds of things, and at PRI we have a lot of tips that we give them for cyber things and things they can do for their electronic devices. But the whole issue of identity theft keeps coming up, so that’s why we have asked you to come in and talk about that.
Tell us from your perspective at ACAP how you are seeing that. Is it happening more frequently and how does ACAP actually become aware of it?
Shanell Schuyler: Okay. Well, first of all, the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program or ACAP runs a hotline where consumers can call in and talk to a staff attorney about issues they are having with an attorney out in the public or an attorney that they are dealing with.
So sometimes we do get calls about whether or not this attorney is acting appropriately or is really an attorney asking them for money or something of that nature. So that would be one way that we hear of identity theft issues or hacking or some other related kind of issue.
And we can try to walk the person through, well, does this sound like something that an attorney would really be asking you for. If you won a lottery in a country that you have never visited, but you have to mail them $5,000 or wire them $5,000 just to get your million dollars, it’s usually a scam. So don’t do that. So that’s one way we hear about identity theft issues.
The other way is when the attorney himself or herself has heard of or has been contacted by the client that may have either been contacted or actually fallen for a scam and given money and then they can no longer find that fake attorney or the contact has been cut off, so to speak. And so now they have got the real attorney on the phone saying, well, where’s my $5,000 that I just paid you, and of course the attorney says you didn’t pay me. I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t know any part of this. I don’t know how this person got my name or my bar number, but they have obviously used this to perpetrate a fraud.
Christine Bilbrey: And so usually when we hear about identity theft with non-attorneys it’s a scammer taking over their credit identity and so they are dealing with the credit reporting agencies because they have opened up fraudulent loans or credit card accounts. But when we talk about specifically identity theft, it can mean that a scammer has gone out there, set up a website and they are practicing law, so truly stolen their identity in a different way.
What are some of the specific scams that you have seen recently where it was that situation?
Shanell Schuyler: Absolutely. I have seen a couple of different things that have come to our attention recently and we are assisting those attorneys as best as the Florida Bar can with our resources and guiding them and actually even learning from them on these instances, and that’s one of the key things for us to continue to keep up to date on what type of scams are out there.
The more information we know, the better that we can prepare our other members to protect themselves, as well as the public from these things. So it is important for our members to notify us when they have these instances.
But two scams are really coming to mind right now. The first is where an attorney’s identity, their bar number, maybe even a fake picture, possibly even a real picture of them has been utilized to create a fake website, Attorney John Smith, PA or whatever that is, and it’s online mostly. They will give an address, a real address on the website, but if you do some Google Map searching or something of that nature, it may be an empty parking lot, it may be an office building that would look relatively legit, but possibly if you just dig a little bit further, you would see some inconsistencies there; maybe no suite number in a large office building, something along those lines that could trigger a very careful looker that maybe this isn’t really a true location of an attorney.
But they are good. I will tell you that these scam artists who are building these websites, they come up very quickly when the attorney, the real attorney has found out, oh wow, my name is being used, my Bar Number is being used, although I have never visited this city or had an office there or something of that nature, they have worked hard to get those websites taken down with the authorities, but overnight another website with a very similar name can pop right back up.
The ones that we have seen and the types of scams that are being run through these websites are usually something along the lines of buying back a timeshare unit and most of the time I think that these timeshare units have been from outside of the United States; Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, someplace that a lot of consumers, a lot of Americans like to vacation and they have bought these timeshares and now they are kind of sick and tired of the fees that keep generating. They might not have gone down there for the last three years to actually utilize their timeshare unit and they want to sell them.
And these folks are coming in and really taking advantage of those. Oh yeah, we have got a buyer, we will take care of that, sign this contract with us. So you are thinking in your head as a consumer, great, all I have to do is sign this contract, they have got the buyer, they are going to take care of me and here comes the scam.
Well, in order to get your $37,000 you need to pay us a customs fee of $2,500 so that we can pay the Mexican government to transfer your money, something similar to that. These are very sophisticated, very persuasive people who will be on you to get that wire instruction from your bank and get your approval to do that.
Again, as a consumer you always have to be wary of if it sounds too good to be true, even if you have put yourself into that situation at that point in time, if you are supposed to get money from someone and they are asking you to give money to get money, scam, scam, scam.
Christine Bilbrey: Big red flag.
Shanell Schuyler: Yes. The biggest that you can see, yes, yes.
Christine Bilbrey: And I think the most upsetting part about this from the attorney’s side is they have done nothing wrong, they are not even involved, because typically when we — the people that reach out to us, their assistant clicked on a link or their Wi-Fi was open, so there was some sort of breakdown on their part. These people haven’t even been involved, the attorneys that are having their identities ripped off.
So is there a particular type of attorney that is more likely to be targeted for this, because I know that we have had attorneys that say, I don’t want all my information on the Bar website and so I guess that’s kind a double-edged sword. What do you tell those attorneys?
Shanell Schuyler: Right, right. Well, we have noticed that there is a greater risk for attorneys whose identifying information, their contact information is not listed on our website. Those can be attorneys who perhaps they have been at the public defender’s office or the state attorney’s office or other governmental agency, where they have a public records exemption for their contact information or if they have been in law enforcement or some other kind of agency where they have an exemption, and they are maybe in between offices or they hae come to a point in their career where they are finished practicing and they don’t want to list their home address.
The rules still require you to do so. That may mean getting a P.O. Box, that’s more of an anonymous kind of thing than putting your street address on there. Emails, everyone can get a Gmail or a Yahoo! or any other kind of account that’s basically just for Bar purposes or something of that nature that you will see how many people get your email then from being purchased online or something like that.
But there are ways that you can still put contact information on there, so when something like this might happen that you could really see where it would come from.
Christine Bilbrey: And so an immediate point of contact is actually crucial in the situation, because whether it’s the consumer who is checking to see if you are legit or the Bar reaching out to you, if we can’t find you, we can’t tell you. So I see why they don’t want the information out. But at the same time, I think people are getting more savvy, so they will pick up the phone to confirm before they hand out their wiring instructions or their credit card number.
Shanell Schuyler: That’s right, because it’s really important, because those attorneys who have all of their contact information, they are certainly not immune from any of this, but when someone calls up and says, hey, is this person really an attorney with the Florida Bar, and we say why, yes. And we say would you like their contact information and it’s different from what they have been contacting the scammer about, from where they have been receiving their contact from.
That’s usually an 800 or an 866 number or something toll-free that they can get to or a dedicated line somehow. And we give them the actual contact information that’s on our website, in our records, and then they can talk to that attorney directly and say, hey, were you really involved in this? Are you asking me for money? Chances are that’s going to end that scam, right there.
Christine Bilbrey: So that brings up another thought in my mind, if you are the victim of credit card theft, you are not liable for the fraudulent charges. Is an attorney in any way liable if they have been the victim of this identity theft scam?
Shanell Schuyler: Well, part of what the Florida Bar does through our program, the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program, is we do ask them to report these instances. Number one, it’s a wonderful tool for us to be able to do things like this, educate the public, educate our members on how to protect themselves and how to protect the public from these scams.
The second thing is we make a record of that report, so that means that if you have already put us on notice of someone using your identity and we get a complain in, we can usually stop it right there and say, this attorney has been the victim of identity theft.
Worst case scenario, we would ask you to respond to that complaint where you can say I reported this to the Florida Bar. I knew about this. This is the part that has come to my attention and I did report it as soon as I knew something about it. I am not involved in this. So it does provide a means by which an attorney can protect themselves from any sort of prosecution from the Bar’s perspective.
Karla Eckardt: And there’s also like a notice on some member profiles, so that would be helpful to consumers. If they go on the Bar website and they search for an attorney, if they see that notice that this particular member has been a victim of identity theft, they would know right away to call the Bar and verify all of the information.
Shanell Schuyler: That’s exactly right. We fought very hard to get that as an instantaneous sort of access. So if someone calls our ACAP department, an attorney calls our ACAP department and says I believe I have been the victim of identity theft. I have been notified by someone who says that someone with my name and my Bar Number asked them for money and I don’t know anything about them.
We say okay, write us a letter, give us the information; it can be an email, give us the information that you know so far on the extent of the identity theft. We put that into our system. I will ask them personally, do you want the Florida Bar to place a profile alert on your member profile on our website. And if they consent to that, we go ahead and it’s a click of a button, it’s refreshed within minutes. And it can be taken down just as quickly.
So I understand the hesitancy on the part of a member to have a big banner on their member profile saying, I have been the victim of identity theft. They are still trying to make a living out there and ensure their clients’ information is safe and all that, which in these instances, this is nothing about their system being hacked; it’s really just about their identity themselves being stolen. So we can take that down just as quickly as we put it up.
And so I think that’s one of the really great functions of this alert. I can put it in for a number of days, weeks; I usually put it in for a year and then ask the attorney to call me back directly if they want it either extended or taken down.
Karla Eckardt: If the attorney knows and chooses to have this on their member profile, they should tell their clients. I mean it’s not a threatening profile alert or it has no negative effect or it’s, again, to protect the public. So I think if they frame it in that way, consumers wouldn’t be alarmed by it. So it’s definitely a useful tool and it’s another layer of protection, which really is important in these cases when, like you said, another website can just pop up tomorrow. So knowing that that may happen and that an attorney’s information needs to be verified is again invaluable.
Christine Bilbrey: Can they take other steps? So after they have contacted your department, you have the banner up, what are some other things that attorneys do to pursue this, if there’s I mean — because I know a lot of times you can’t trace the scammer, but what else have attorneys done in the situation, beyond contacting you?
Shanell Schuyler: Yes. We will tell the attorney to contact law enforcement, their local law enforcement first of all. A lot of times then that local law enforcement agency may elevate that concern up to a different agency in law enforcement throughout the state.
We will also tell our attorney members to contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud hotline and that number is 866-9-NO-SCAM, and there is also another Consumer Services — Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has an 800-HELP-FLA. And both of those agencies are definitely collecting the information on these types of things as well, and they can work with state and even national agencies to try to may be perhaps even search the websites and get IP addresses and things of that nature, where they can go behind the scenes a little bit more; especially, if there’s some interstate or international kind of money transfers and things of that nature, I think they can find out where these sources are originating from.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah, as technology advances. There used to be that these people just had free rein on the Internet, but you are right, they have gotten much better at tracking them down just from that computer address.
Shanell Schuyler: And they have the resources and the tools, and again, I think the more that people report these things, I am certain that this is a grossly underreported type of thing. People don’t want to report to the Florida Bar that some thing has happened to their identity, but it’s really important to do that. It’s important to do this with law enforcement and with all those other agencies as well, just so we keep on top of the latest scams and really can get to the heart of these things quickly.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah. And from the other side, I think that if you have been scammed, you may be embarrassed, like you look foolish, so you don’t want to tell anyone and then you are allowing it to continue if you don’t bring it forward to the authorities. So it goes both ways.
One of the other ways that we are aware of and there’s been a Bar news article about it that attorneys’ identities are being stolen in a totally different way. They are not out there practicing law, I guess they can’t be using this, but there was a whole article in the Bar news about the e-filing accounts. And so that sparked quite a few phone calls of just alarmed people, because they said I don’t even need an e-filing account. I don’t file anything with the court. That’s not the kind of law I practice.
What are you telling those people? Because if the scam was these non-attorneys or we don’t know who they are, are setting up e-filing accounts, which is very easy, because they want to make it easy for attorneys to sign up, but then what is your office telling attorneys if they are concerned about the e-filing account scam?
Shanell Schuyler: Right. That was the second type of scam that I was going to talk about and we got onto the more immediate topics of what do you do. But in this particular case, an attorney’s name and Bar Number were used without her knowledge to set up an e-filing account, and it went so far as, again, building a fake corporate identity.
Christine Bilbrey: Wow.
Karla Eckardt: Wow.
Shanell Schuyler: It was registered with Secretary of State’s Office and this attorney did not practice anywhere near the geographical area where this fake law office was set up. The scam artist petitioned the court for surplus funds after foreclosure and there were considerable surplus funds in the Registry of the Court.
This fake attorney filed a petition on behalf of the foreclosed person saying release the funds to this attorney’s trust account, and thousands, tens of thousands of dollars at risk here and they were able to get a court order to do that. And then all of a sudden the person who is actually due those funds, the former homeowner said well, wait a minute, where are my funds. And there’s a court order that says it’s to this attorney’s office, and of course there is no —
Karla Eckardt: Long gone.
Shanell Schuyler: Right, exactly. And so this poor unsuspecting young attorney, who by the way, had all of her contact information on the Florida Bar’s website, but that didn’t help in this case, because they were just doing something completely off the grid here.
She called and she said, oh my word, what can I do here? So my advice is to go ahead and secure your own Bar Number by registering it with the Clerk of the Court’s websites to get your own e-filing account. That way your Bar Number is already taken and no one can use that one. Even if you never use it in your life; as soon as I heard about this, I did it. I don’t file. I am not going to e-file anytime soon anywhere in the State of Florida, but my number is now off the grid.
Christine Bilbrey: So you lock it down.
Shanell Schuyler: You lock it down.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah. There are so many things they recommend now, like even if you don’t have a website, go ahead and reserve the domain names, shanellschuyler.com, so nobody else can take them from you.
Karla Eckardt: Email, social media, go ahead and just reserve it, you don’t have to use it, but you may, but nobody else will and that’s the point.
Christine Bilbrey: Do you think that there’s been an uptick in identity theft or is this just a new way that they are having these issues, all these scams that are being hit? It seems like attorneys are targeted, is there more of it or is it just changing?
Shanell Schuyler: It’s hard to say if there’s actually more of it. I think we are getting more reports and I hope that that will continue, because again, the more we know about it, the more we can do things like this, telling the public about it, telling our members about it so that they can better protect themselves.
So we have had an uptick in the number of reports and I think that these scams are getting more sophisticated, they are getting more brazen, if you will. I mean very little floors me these days after spending almost 11 years dealing with conduct and things like that and what attorneys do and don’t do in cases, but in this case in particular, especially where you have got someone really just pretending to be another individual filing for money out of the Registry of the Court and actually going to get it. So that was pretty shocking, it’s pretty brazen.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah, involving the court takes it to a whole new level.
Shanell Schuyler: Right, right, and they had to have a court order to get money out of the Court Registry, so.
Christine Bilbrey: And then there’s banking laws. I mean there are just so many layers to this, but it just keeps getting more sophisticated.
What are some general things that you would recommend attorneys also do? So like make sure you have good contact information on the Bar site, what are some other things? I mean the things that come to my mind are like start reading the Bar news because we are putting these out there or checking the website. But generally, just any kind of way to protect yourself for young attorneys or people that aren’t very tech savvy?
Shanell Schuyler: You are opening the door for me to plug PRI. Go to the PRI website. Look at the things that PRI does have on their website about identity theft and take these instances to heart, wherein we give you the information like register that Bar Number with the e-filing portal. These are very simple things. They don’t cost you a thing.
Check your identity out there. Google yourself. Don’t let your kids Google you. But make sure that you are kind of being aware out there of —
Karla Eckardt: Police yourself.
Shanell Schuyler: Yes, yes, police your name, and just like you guard your Social Security Number these days, your identity is out there and it’s important to be able to look at the Internet and just kind of be aware of things that could be out there.
So yes, definitely read the Bar news. We will continue to present articles as these scams develop, as things come to our attention that we need to keep this in the forefront of everyone’s minds so that we can better prepare and better prevent these things from happening.
Christine Bilbrey: Oh and I thought of one more thing, because we talked about an article where a would-be scammer was headed off because the attorney had posted a video of themselves, which is really like a good great marketing thing, like get to know me so that you hire me, but the woman knew that the voice was different, as soon as she watched the video she did a little due diligence and here was this get to know me video and she said that’s not the person I was talking to on the phone.
So it’s funny, things that are — actually putting out more stuff about yourself could protect you to differentiate yourself from the scammer.
Shanell Schuyler: I think that takeaways on our end as well. Update your Bar profile. I can’t tell you how many times we have gotten attorneys that said, well, I changed law firms last year, two years ago, and sometimes we will go to email them something and just to verify we will check their profile to make sure we have spelled everything correctly, completely different information. So, start with updating your Bar profile report. It’s better to report.
Again, we can’t act on anything if we don’t know about it. So ACAP is here to help and I think that’s something that we have to remind attorneys, because whenever we tell attorneys we want to transfer them to ACAP or ethics, they immediately start freaking out, and we always assure them, no, they are here to help you, they are here to facilitate any issue you may have, either with another attorney or with an unknown scam artist.
Christine Bilbrey: Yeah. I will start reassuring them immediately, you are going to love Shanell and her staff, they are here to help you, before I transfer them, to lower their anxiety.
And I think there’s some low-tech things that as technology, we love technology at PRI, but low-tech things where we hearken back to, make a phone call and say hey, now that we are working together I just wanted to say hello and introduce myself. Or asking clients, I think that they don’t want to scare off a client, but saying I need to make a copy of your driver’s license, like identify actually if you are seeing the person, just because they are in your office doesn’t mean they are who they say they are. So we have got to not overlook the low-tech ways.
And so we do post the Cyber and the Scam Alert, so HYPERLINK “http://www.” floridabar.org, those go up.
It looks like we have reached the end of our program and I want to thank Shanell Schuyler for joining us today.
Shanell Schuyler: Thank you so much for having me.
Christine Bilbrey: If our listeners have more questions or they want to follow up, how do they reach you, like does your department have an email address and a direct line that you can give them?
Shanell Schuyler: Sure. They can always call the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program hotline and that’s operated 9 to 5, Monday through Friday and the number is (866) 352-0707, or they can email me or any of my staff at HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected]”[email protected].
Christine Bilbrey: Excellent. If you liked what you heard today, please rate us in Apple Podcasts. Join us next time for another episode of The Florida Bar Podcast, brought to you by the Practice Resource Institute on Legal Talk Network. I am Christine Bilbrey.
Karla Eckardt: And I am Karla Eckardt. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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