Fraud Risk Posed by Bogus Law Firms

A recent BBC television programme “Fake Britain” (aired on 12th August) highlighted the ease with which criminals can impersonate solicitors in order to steal from individuals engaged in property transactions.

The programme recounted the case of Nick Christofi who lost £735,000 to fraudsters who assumed the identity of a genuine firm of solicitors.  Mr Christofi had instructed a genuine solicitor to act on his behalf in the purchase transaction.  That genuine solicitor checked that the solicitor they were dealing with on the other side of the transaction was authentic by checking their details using the “find a solicitor” facility on the Law Society website.

It later transpired that the criminals had stolen the identity of a retired solicitor and managed to dupe the Solicitors Regulation Authority (‘SRA’) into listing that solicitor as practising from a fake office address under the name of an existing genuine firm of solicitors (the SRA is the official body responsible for regulating solicitors).

Mr Christofi’s claim for compensation from the SRA was rejected on the grounds that the SRA regulates solicitors, not criminals and therefore people with complaints should go to the police.

The SRA has warned that there has been a marked increase in criminals targeting firms of solicitors in order to steal their identity and thereby steal funds.  They have warned against relying solely upon the list of solicitors on the Law Society website.

In the Christofi case the fraud was only discovered after the transaction had completed, when it transpired that the property that had been purchased was in the process of being repossessed and the fraudsters had got away with the purchase funds.

As with other types of identity theft, it would seem the internet presents greater opportunities for criminals to impersonate others through the use of fake websites, email addresses and online profiles.  It is therefore important for solicitors and consumers to be aware of the possibilities and to be vigilant, especially when very large sums of money are involved.

The programme suggests that consumers should use a reputable solicitor for conveyancing transactions, ideally one that is recommended to them.  At Harris & Harris the vast majority of our conveyancing clients are returning clients or have been recommended to us.  Harris & Harris are members of the Law Society Conveyancing Quality Scheme.  This means that all our conveyancing staff undergo additional training and security checks to monitor the risks of fraud.

A report of the case can be read here:-