‘Trust me, I’m a lawyer’ – the risks of bogus law firms

The number of bogus law firms reported to the SRA over the past few years has increased exponentially.

So much so, in fact, that the SRA saw fit to reserve special mention for the problem in their recent update to the risk outlook 2014 – and yet, many law firms remain blind to it.

Highlighting some of the ways in which fraudsters operate is Trevor Hellawell – owner of ExL Practice Development, a specialist legal services and compliance consultancy.

“The SRA’s main concerns about bogus firms are that legal services may be being offered by those not entitled to do so (to the detriment of client protection and the reputation of the legal system generally), or that the identity of firms (genuine and false) is being used to steal money,” Hellawell states.

The most worrying aspect of this type of crime is the ever-increasing sophistication with which fraudsters can impersonate genuine firms. Going to great lengths to stage the impersonation, criminals can easily clone a company’s website, making near-imperceptible but crucial changes such as the phone number or email address.

Criminals go to great lengths to impersonate genuine solicitors, even to the degree of establishing fake branches of existing law firms.

Some even establish fake branches of existing law firms to help perpetrate the con.

But despite the level of intricacy applied, there are usually tell-tale signs if the solicitor you’re dealing with is dishonest. Hellawell suggests looking out for inconsistencies in key details such as in the firm name, URL or bank account details, as well as poor grammar or spelling throughout the website.

Solicitors should also be vigilant where mobile phone numbers are provided rather than landlines and should check whether an SRA number is displayed.

Critically however, law firms that fail to identify when they have been subject to fraud are getting short shift from the SRA.

Indeed, as Hellawell notes, “It seems that the current prevailing attitude of the regulator is that if a fraud is perpetrated upon you, it is your fault for not spotting it.”

This can have dire consequences for a law firm, not least through any financial penalties that might be applied, but the prospect of a damaged reputation could be potentially disastrous for your future bottom line.

For advice on how to remain structurally compliant with the SRA with regards bogus law firms, click to download the full report.