Over the past few months, we have received an increasing number of calls and e-mails from real estate brokers, real estate investors, private lenders, and business clients who have received unsolicited offers of financial investment in the caller’s business. The offers are from “doctors” (i.e. Peter Butler) in London who are simply dying to purchase a home that is listed by the REALTOR, or an investor (usually from China or Africa) who has millions of dollars they want to “place” with the real estate investor to purchase properties or lend to others through the local investor or private lender. Even lawyers are not immune to these solicitations when they receive e-mails from supposed divorcee’s who need “assistance” in simply enforcing their divorce judgment against their multi-millionaire ex-spouse.

These offers are the first step to a scam. If the recipient responds to the e-mail offer, they are quickly pounced upon with urgent requests for address and bank account information. The e-mails are usually written in improper or broken English, with bad punctuation, misspellings, and convoluted stories. The goal usually is for the scammer to deliver to the victim a counterfeit certified or official bank check for an amount that is in excess of the amount needed for the requested transaction. The excess is then to be wired to another account to purchase property, or refund to the sender immediately after the counterfeit check is deposited.

Today, we received a letter purportedly from an attorney with the law firm of Tanzola & Sorbara in Ontario, Canada. The letter was a transmittal of a check for $155,000.00 drawn on the law firm’s “general account” (whatever that is). The transmittal letter informed us that the enclosed check was for the earnest money deposit and purchase price of a closing we were to be conducting (we had no idea who the parties were, or what property was being conveyed) and that we were to immediately notify the sender, via e-mail, once we had deposited the check into our firm’s trust account. The check and letter appeared to be printed with an ink-jet printer. The phone number of the firm that was printed on the letter did not match the actual number of the law firm as printed on the law firm’s website. The spelling of the amount of the check was incorrect, and the firm’s mailing zip code in Canada was incomplete on the letter. When we contacted the law firm directly (via the phone number on their website that we found via Google, rather than the number on the scammer’s letter), we were informed that they had been receiving calls for the past four months from Florida attorneys who had received the same bogus letter and counterfeit checks.

If we had deposited the counterfeit check into our trust account and notified the scammer at the bogus e-mail address noted in the transmittal letter, I am confident that he would have informed us┬áthat the funds had been sent to us in error; that a closing was pending in another office, and we would have been instructed to wire the funds directly to the “correct” closing attorney. Had we fallen for the scam, we would have wired out the funds before the counterfeit check had time to bounce. The bank would not have been liable for the problem. We would be responsible and have to fund the new shortage in our trust account from our own funds. That’s $155,000.00 we would have lost with no hope of recovering it from the bad guys.

Likewise, if the investor, private lender or REALTOR falls for the scam, they too could lose funds, or — worse — control of their accounts to the bad guys. So the next time you receive an unsolicited offer that sounds too good to be true, it is.

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