Fairfield lawyer catches scam in the act

A Fairfield lawyer was almost out nearly $300,000 when he was targeted by a scam focusing on law firms, accountants, financial planners and other professional groups involved with personal funds.

David Sykes received an e-mail from a woman claiming to be living in Japan with a son in the hospital, and a husband living in Jefferson County, Iowa. Her correspondence included specific facts about the area and Sykes' firm, and asked to be represented in a divorce. She kept eluding telephone communication, and Sykes grew suspicious.

Once Sykes told the woman they could not represent her, the office received a settlement check from the alleged husband for $294,000 overnight by Express Mail with a postmark from Canada and a return address in Texas.

On further investigation and contact with the FBI, Sykes was told that the routing number on the check, which looked like a valid Chase Bank check, would not be routed back to the bank itself.

"It would have gone to the scammers, possibly outside the US, possibly Nigeria," Sykes said. "And they have the technology to reverse the wire, in other words, to capture my account number and my wiring instructions and they could report to be me and before I knew what happened, they could empty the account."

And since the scam came from outside the U.S. borders, the FBI, the FTC, the US postal service and Chase Bank all would not have been able to replace or refund the money once it had been taken. Sykes would have been responsible for reimbursing his client trust fund. Furthermore, they are having trouble investigating the source of the scam.

"I thought we were safer here [in Iowa], but the fact that this may be out of the country limits some of our federal authorities from going outside of the borders," Sykes said. "It's a new type of crime, it's a new problem that has to be given serious attention by the authorities."

The Chicago FBI Bureau told Sykes they receive around 40 calls a day reporting similar actions. Sykes wants to alert similar firms and businesses that could be potential targets of the scam.

The biggest tip-off is a client who only wants to communicate via e-mail, and will send a check through the mail without speaking to the firm on the phone. Other warning signs include: a generic salutation, a request for assistance outside an office's area of expertise, a lack of specifics, an e-mail coming from a foreign country and a settlement amount resulting in one spouse owing a round number and exact amount.