How to spot the scammers – Daily News

on Apr12
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Shakespeare once wrote, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.” And you can insert any of hundreds of lawyer jokes here. (Here’s one: What do you throw to a drowning lawyer? A: His partners.) So why would anybody want to pretend to be a lawyer? It happens, all too frequently, in many guises.

Here are a few to watch out for …

The fake lawyer “suing” you

A common scam these days involves a phone call or an email from someone claiming to be a lawyer representing an opposing party in a lawsuit against you. This fake lawyer may also state they’ve already obtained a judgment against you, and now it’s time to pay up. They may even give you a (fake) case number. Typically they’re demanding personal information and often a settlement amount. Real lawyer (me) wants you to know that’s not how this works.

If there were a lawsuit against you, you would know long before someone started calling to collect money. To start, you would have been served with the complaint. But the easiest way to figure out if the call is from an actual lawyer or even a real lawyer’s office is to ask for the name and bar number of the attorney handling the matter.

If the caller gives you a name and/or number, check with the State Bar of California at to see if the phone number they’re calling from matches the name and bar number you’ve been given. Attorneys (the real ones) in California are required to maintain current contact information with the State Bar.

This faux lawyer wants to represent you

Be wary of scams when you’re searching for a lawyer. Sadly, there are certain areas of law that seem to attract scammers pretending to be lawyers to make a quick buck off your pain. Common areas for this are immigration, disability, troubles with the IRS and personal injury. Signs it’s a scam include demands for large sums of money up front, pressure to retain them immediately, and the insistence that this is an emergency and you’ll soon lose rights if you don’t retain this person immediately.

If you find yourself being approached with offers of representation or even when you’re responding to an ad, be sure to do your due diligence. Again, find out the alleged attorney’s name and check with the State Bar. Check the phone number you’re getting calls from — does it really belong to a law office? Check your gut, too. If you’re feeling pressured, worried, or just queasy, this isn’t the right person to represent you, whether they’re a lawyer or not.

“I’m not a lawyer, I just play one in your documents”

“Document preparation assistance” offices have proliferated in California. You can usually recognize them by their neon signs and big window advertisements stating you can get a divorce, file bankruptcy, do your estate planning … and go home with several Ginsu knives all for $299. (I’m only kidding about the Ginsu knives. Those are extra.)

These offices are staffed with non-attorneys (and, not unheard of, disbarred attorneys) whose role is supposed to be solely to assist you in typing up your paperwork for a divorce, bankruptcy, estate planning or other legal matter. By law, they cannot give you legal advice. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, let me tell you. Here are just a few issues the document preparer cannot advise you on:

  • What type of bankruptcy to file
  • Is a will sufficient or do you need a trust
  • How do your  retirement plans or life insurance integrate with your estate plan
  • How do federal laws dealing with retirement plans affect your divorce
  • How can you tell if the spouse you are divorcing is hiding assets
  • Can your soon-to-be ex waive spousal support forever? How about child support?
  • Do you need a corporation or a limited liability company? How will that entity be taxed?

And filing incorrect immigration papers can result in permanently destroying a person’s immigration status or losing your place on the years-long INS waiting list.

When you skip the lawyers and head to a “document preparer,” you’re the one who is now “playing lawyer.” You might guess right. You might not. However it turns out, the document preparation assistance guy or gal isn’t responsible — they were just your typist.

Legal matters require legal advice. And yes, we know, it’s not cheap. But it’s cheaper than getting it wrong. If you still go to a non-lawyer, please at least make sure they’re bonded. And remember, they’re not covered by the attorney-client privilege, so anything you discuss with them is not private, and they can be called to testify against you.

The victim lawyer

This is just to make you feel better. Lawyers are becoming the victims of online scams now as well. Usually, it’s someone claiming they need legal assistance and want the lawyer to hold funds for them in the lawyer’s trust account. And guess what they need in order to send that? The lawyer’s banking information. You’re not feeling sorry for us though, are you? It’s OK. We’re used to that.

Q: Why do they bury lawyers under 20 feet of dirt? A: Because deep down, they’re really good people.

Teresa J. Rhyne is an attorney who specializes in estate planning and trust administration. She is also the #1 New York Times bestselling author of “The Dog Lived (and So Will I).” Reach her via email at

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