Recently, I received a call from a very concerned parent who lived outside of Georgia (for the sake of anonymity, I’m going to keep these personal details vague). The parent had just received a call, allegedly from their child (who lived in Georgia), over a very poor connection. During this call, the “child” stated that they had been in a bad car accident, were injured, and that the police had confiscated their phone. The “child” gave their parent the phone number to a lawyer “assigned by the public defender’s office.”
The parent attempted to contact the child but was unable to reach them, so the parent called the “lawyer.” This “lawyer” told the parent that the child had been in a serious DUI-related accident and was facing felony charges. The lawyer stated that, due to COVID, “usual” bail procedures were suspended and that they should contact a “court officer” to discuss how to pay bail. The “court officer” indicated that the parents should pay $10,000 via wire/ACH to “the attorney.”
While all of this was going on, the parent also contacted me, and I participated in several calls with the “lawyer.” Because I am a DUI lawyer and work in the jurisdiction in question every day, I asked the “lawyer” some basic questions about what was going on with the case. The “lawyer” gave answers that were legally incorrect and/or inconsistent with the way that cases typically work in this jurisdiction. I pressed the “lawyer” for more information about the “lawyer” himself, and he provided a name and bar number for an attorney licensed in the state of Florida (let’s call him Lawyer Doe). The “lawyer” began equivocating, stating that it was possible that the child was fine after all, and perhaps had been a victim of identity theft. He put us on a long hold.
While on hold, I looked up Lawyer Doe on the Florida bar directory using the bar number that the “lawyer” had given me. I called the phone number listed on the bar directory and talked to the real Lawyer Doe, who was clearly not the same person that the parent and I had been speaking to. I told Lawyer Doe that his name and bar number were being used in a scam.
When I finally spoke to the original “lawyer” again, I indicated that we knew he was running a scam. Ultimately, it turned out that all of the individuals communicating with the parent were fraudsters, including the “lawyer,” the “court officer,” and the initial call from the “child.” The case was referred to the FBI.
This scam is a new twist on old scams, made more convincing by the fact that some courtroom procedures really have been disrupted by COVID-19. The FBI has tweeted warnings about scams like these. These scammers prey on your emotions, but there are things you can do to protect yourself.
Red Flags to Watch For
⇒ The fraudsters claim that procedures are not running as normal, particularly in regards to payment of bail. While it is true that COVID-related shutdowns have disrupted some courtroom procedures, this should make you suspicious.
⇒ One of the fraudsters asked that the bail money be sent via wire payment to the attorney. In general, attorneys do not accept bail money or post bail on behalf of their clients, and a public defender (like this person claimed to be) would never do so.
⇒ In other cases, scammers have asked for payments in unusual forms, such as Walmart gift cards. Hopefully I do not need to explain that bail is not usually paid in Walmart gift cards.
⇒ The fraudster cannot answer basic questions about the process or tries to backpedal once you (or your lawyer) start asking questions.
⇒ The fraudster claims that he/she is a lawyer licensed in a different state than the court in question. Lawyers cannot practice in states in which they are not licensed. A Florida public defender would not be handling a Fulton County DUI case.
Protect Yourself From Scammers
The absolute best thing you can do is to talk to a lawyer who practices DUI law in the same jurisdiction as the alleged case. First, lawyers who practice DUI law have a unique knowledge base and skill set, as DUI law works differently than other kinds of law. That knowledge is hard to fake. That means that a DUI lawyer will be able to pick up on some of those red flags I listed above. That lawyer will also understand the particular jurisdiction and will be familiar with the judges. This knowledge can be helpful in detecting when a scammer is giving false information. In short, a lawyer will necessarily be harder to convincingly lie to.
Second, lawyers are trained to be impartial and handle things well under stress. When a person’s child is involved, it is normal for a parent to be stressed and worried, and this can lead itself to overlooking some red flags in order to do what is best for one’s child. While we lawyers care deeply about our clients and their family members, we also bring an impartiality to the situation that can result in objective decision-making.
Although I highly recommend that you talk to a lawyer, you can also do some investigating yourself. Obviously the first thing you should do is to try to contact your child. If you are able to contact him/her, then the situation is likely quickly resolved.
If for whatever reason you cannot contact your child, do a Google search for the lawyer. Do they look legit? Do they have a website? Do they have reviews? Can other lawyers vouch for them? Try checking the website for the State Bar. In Georgia, you can search for a lawyer on the State Bar’s directory, which can be accessed here. Check if the phone number on the State Bar’s website matches the number that called you, and try calling the number listed on the Bar’s directory. Ask who the judge is, where the courthouse is located, and what the next steps in the process are. Write this information down.
At the very end of the call, when the scammer knew he was busted, he told my client and me, “You got lucky.” Really, though, my client was not lucky, he was smart. He asked questions, and he called a lawyer with knowledge of the subject matter. If you are in a similar situation, you should do the same.