A Houston lawyer has taken a home equity loan to repay his law firm for $182,500 lost in a variation of what has become known as the Nigerian e-mail scam.
In the case of lawyer Richard Howell Jr., the scammer claimed to be a Japanese businessman who needed help collecting $3.6 million from four customers in the United States. Howell checked and found websites of the collecting company and the four U.S. debtors. His firm Buckley, White, Castaneda & Howell, would get a contingency fee of one-third for any money collected. Believing the contact to be a potentially lucrative client, he proceeded in the collections action.

magictrick.jpgThe firm received a collections check of $367,500 and, believing the check had cleared, sent $182,500 to the supposed Japanese client in Hong Kong, according to a suit Howell’s firm has filed against Citibank in Houston court. The suit contends the check was labeled “Citibank Official Check” and a Citibank employee verified that the money had been paid, a representation that turned out to be wrong when the check bounced.
But he’s not the only lawyer to have fallen prey to the scam. Howell says he knows of another Texas lawyer who lost $300,000 in a similar check fraud. And an Atlanta lawyer, Gregory Bartko, lost $200,000 to a scammer who claimed to be from Tah Tong Textile Co., a real company that trades on the Taiwanese stock exchange, according to a report this summer. Bartko later concluded there is no connection between the company and the person who contacted him.
The latest version of the so-called Nigerian e-mail scam is that they’re placing ads for apartments to rent in high rent districts, and then asking prospective tenants to do a money transfer to a friend or relative to prove the tenant has the money available. That seems legit — and since it’s to a friend or a relative, the prospective tenant knows that the money is safe. Except, once the tenant forwards on a scanned copy of the transfer payment receipt, the scammers go to the bank pretending to be the recipient and withdraw the money. It’s a bit more complicated, but again, it’s a scam where the victim is easily tricked because there doesn’t seem to be any risk.
But not just consumers are duped. Take, for example, a group of Russian immigrants, who used their hacking skills to effectively run a trucking company that didn’t exist. They hacked into a Department of Transportation website that listed licensed trucking firms to change the contact info (temporarily) on certain firms to their own address and phone number. Then, they would visit another online site that listed cargo in need of transportation. They’d pose as the firm whose contact info they’d replaced, get the deal, and then go find another trucking firm to actually deliver the cargo. The cargo itself would get delivered, and the scammers would contact the original cargo owners to get paid. Then, the company that actually delivered the cargo would contact the company these scammers pretended to be working for, and discover that it had no clue what they were talking about. Apparently, this scam was effective enough to net the scammers over a half-million dollars. Of course, it wasn’t effective enough to keep them from getting busted.
If you receive an email from someone claiming to need your help getting money out of a foreign country, don’t respond. Forward “Nigerian” scams – including all the email addressing information – to spam@uce.gov. If you’ve lost money to one of these schemes, call your local Secret Service field office. Local field offices are listed in the Blue Pages of your telephone directory.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) maintains OnGuardOnline.gov , A website that provides practical tips from the federal government and the technology industry to help you be on guard against Internet fraud, secure your computer, and protect your personal information.

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