Example one: The State Bar of California receives a complaint about an attorney from one of his purported clients. The complainant shares a letter, supposedly from the attorney, written on State Bar letterhead. However, the attorney works at the San Diego District Attorney’s Office and does not represent individual clients. All signs point to fraud.
Example two: A California attorney is contacted by a woman in Kentucky, who states that she has heard from someone claiming to be the attorney. The man on the phone threatens to file suit against her if she doesn’t pay phony debts.
Example three: Timeshare scammers use a California attorney’s name and bar number to set up a bogus law firm to hold funds in escrow pending the sale of timeshare properties. After payment, both the funds and scammers disappear. The real attorney is then stuck handling complaints from angry “clients.”
Identity theft is a horrible experience for anyone. But what happens when the victim is an attorney? The harm is magnified, because the theft actually creates at least two sets of victims—the individual or individuals cheated by the fraudster, and the attorneys themselves.
Attorney identity theft is just one of the types of cases handled by the State Bar of California’s unit assigned to pursue the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). UPL is a crime. People who hold themselves out as practicing law who are not authorized to do so can do significant harm to the public.
The State Bar coordinates with local law enforcement on such cases. If you believe you have been defrauded by someone posing as an attorney, contact the California State Bar and file a complaint.
What can you do to protect yourself from fraudulent actors posing as attorneys?
• Ask for the attorney’s State Bar number.
• Look them up on the State Bar website to see if their license is active and whether they have any history of discipline.
• Check that the address, phone number, and email listed in correspondence matches what appears on the attorney’s profile on the State Bar website.
• Call the phone number listed on the attorney’s State Bar profile to make sure you are dealing with the correct attorney.
• Make sure to get your agreement in writing as well as receipts for payments you make.
• Be wary if someone requires cash payments.
• Keep a paper trail. If you don’t have a bank account, use a cashier’s check, but be aware that you cannot stop payment on a cashier’s check.
• If you have already made a payment, a California attorney must provide you an accounting of your bills. Anyone who refuses or neglects to do this is suspect.
• If you believe you have been defrauded by someone posing as an attorney, contact the California State Bar and file a complaint.
• The State Bar makes available unauthorized practice of law complaint forms and instructions in multiple languages.
• An online complaint form is available in English and Spanish. It will soon be available in other languages.
What steps should attorneys take if they believe their identity has been stolen?
• Contact the State Bar’s Office of Attorney Regulation, 888-800-3400.
• The State Bar places an internal note on the attorney’s State Bar records, in case a complaint is ever made about the attorney.
• The State Bar encourages attorneys victimized by identity theft to file a police report with local law enforcement and with federal authorities, such as the US Postal Inspection Service and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), if fraud is evident.
• The State Bar encourages attorneys to file formal UPL complaints with the State Bar.
• When cases allegedly involve fraudulent use of letterhead, we report them to federal authorities – the US Postal Inspection Service for mail fraud and identity theft, and the FTC for identity theft.
The State Bar of California’s mission is to protect the public and includes the primary functions of licensing, regulation and discipline of attorneys; the advancement of the ethical and competent practice of law; and support of efforts for greater access to, and inclusion in, the legal system.
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