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Sheriff’s office: Check schemes targeting real estate offices, law firms



The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office is warning local businesses about an emerging counterfeit check scheme involving emails and overseas transactions that is targeting law firms and real estate offices in the Reno area.

“All Internet users need to be cautious when they receive unsolicited e-mails,” FBI Supervisory Senior Resident Agent Mike West said. “Law firms and real estate agencies are advised to conduct as much due diligence as possible before engaging in transactions with parties who are handling their business solely via e-mail, particularly those parties claiming to reside overseas.”

According to West, some cases involve a fraudulent client who sends an email indicating an interest in purchasing local real estate. The scammer executes purchase agreements and sends a “certified” check to the real estate firm as earnest money in order to open escrow. The check is then deposited in an escrow account by the real estate agent.

Shortly thereafter, the alleged purchaser provides an excuse to terminate the transaction and a request is made to return the funds. Funds are returned to the fraudulent client prior to the check being returned by the bank as counterfeit.

Scammers also send e-mails to lawyers claiming to be overseas and in need of legal representation to collect delinquent payments, or receive settlement payments, from third parties in the United States.

The law firm receives a retainer agreement and invoices reflecting the amount owed along with a check payable to the law firm. The firm is instructed to extract the retainer fee, including any other fees associated with the transaction, and wire the remaining funds to a bank. At times, the law firm will also receive a telephone call from a fraudulent attorney representing parties to the transaction agreeing to the settlement.

By the time the check is determined to be counterfeit, the funds have already been wired, often times overseas.

In a new twist, the fraudulent client poses as an ex-wife “on assignment” in an Asian country who is seeking legal representation to collect of divorce settlement monies from an ex-husband in the United States.

The law firm agrees to represent the ex-wife, sends and contacts the ex-husband. The ex-husband, who is also part of the scheme, sends the law firm a “certified” check for the settlement via a delivery service. The ex-wife then instructs the firm to wire the funds, less the retainer fee, to an overseas bank account.

When the scam is executed successfully, the law firm wires the money before discovering the check is counterfeit.

Individuals who receive information pertaining to the above counterfeit check schemes are encouraged to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation at 775-328-4000.

The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office celebrates 150 years of proud service and community partnership in 2011. Sheriff Michael Haley is the 24th person elected to serve as the Sheriff of Washoe County. His office continues to be the only full service public safety agency operating within northern Nevada and is responsible for operating the consolidated detention facility, regional crime lab, Northern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center, Internet Crimes against Children Task Force, court security, service of civil process and traditional street patrols.

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