Email scammers have come a long way since the “grieving widow in Ethiopia” ploy. As the economy slowed down, scammers ramped up, becoming ever-more sophisticated in their methods. Recently, The Tennessean reported the story of a Houston real estate attorney who nearly found himself $500,000 poorer as part of a scam that spanned two continents.
Richard Merrill, a partner in Fabio & Merrill, was always extra careful when contacted by a prospective client via email; but when a Houston real estate agent contacted him late last year to prepare real estate documents for a doctor client who was relocating to Houston from London and was buying a house, Merrill didn’t think twice. He began the process and got to work.
The agent assumed her London client was legit and explains that she asked Merrill to do the document work because the client specifically requested that she involve a lawyer. Asking that the agent involve a lawyer didn’t raise any flags since it’s pretty common.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, until the alleged London doctor sent Merrill a down-payment cashier’s check for close to $500,000. What made the attorney pause is that the deposit check was made out for more than the entire purchase price of the house. His suspicions grew when he received an e-mail from the supposed doctor, asking him to forward some of the money to China in order to pay for some medical equipment. Real Estate buyers do not usually send extra money, especially for something completely unrelated.
Fortunately for Merrill, his bank immediately identified the check as a forgery and he was able to alert the agent that they were both being scammed. Merrill tracked down an email address for a London surgeon with the same name as the “client” but was never able to reach him. Merrill warned fellow real estate attorneys of the scam, and reported the incident to the Texas State Bar. Merrill says he went public because he needed “to alert other attorneys that they [the scammers] are getting more sophisticated,” and so that other attorneys could recognize scams faster than he was able to.
The moral of the story? Nobody is safe from scammers and never stop being cautious. The best way to protect your assets is to always deal with proven, reputable companies and real estate professionals. Remember: if a deal sounds too good to be true, it most likely is.