Wednesday, July 4, 2012

State Bar's Public Repository Of Attorneys' Names, Bar Numbers A Handy Source Of Personal Info For Identity Thieves

In Los Angeles, California, The Recorder reports:

  • "You're not Jerry Garcia." It was a strange thing for Max Gerald "Jerry" Garcia to hear. For that is indeed the Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith partner's name. But on this March day, neither Garcia nor this confused man standing in the Los Angeles firm's 12th floor reception area recognized each other.

  • The man explained that he and his mother had met an attorney at another site across town. The attorney, who identified himself as Jerry Garcia of Lewis Brisbois, said he could help with an insurance matter. And he offered the family a deal: work with him alone — keep Lewis Brisbois out of it — and he'd only collect $1,000 from them.

  • The mother and son agreed. But then the son couldn't reach the attorney; the address on his business card turned out to be a mail drop in La Habra. So he turned to the State Bar's website and tracked down the man he thought was his lawyer at the Lewis Brisbois office. That's when both men discovered they were the victims of an identity thief. "I don't know why someone would do something like that," the real Garcia said. "It seems like you're doomed to get caught."

  • Garcia that day unwittingly joined a small but growing number of California lawyers whose names and bar numbers have been co-opted by scam artists. Though their methods and motives differ, the thieves adopt real attorneys' personas and professional stature to prey on victims who may speak little English and often have no familiarity with the law.

  • A common scheme involves debt collection. Someone using the name of a lawyer will call or send letters to victims warning them to pay up or face criminal charges. There may or may not be a real debt. But some recipients will pay without questioning. Others get angry and track down the "attorney's" name on the bar's website. That's often the first time a lawyer learns someone has swiped his or her identity.

  • "It just seems to be another scam to get money," said Cecilia Horton-Billard, senior trial counsel in the State Bar's office of intake.
  • State law makes attorneys' names and bar numbers public information. The State Bar's website provides an easily accessible repository for that data — a consumer-protection measure that also provides easy identity shopping for troublemakers.

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