Scammers claiming to be Illinois lawyers called people around the country this summer demanding immediate payment of bogus debts and threatening them with arrest.
People from California to Maryland have been receiving phone calls allegedly coming from Illinois lawyers demanding immediate payment of debts and threatening to send police officers to the people's homes to have them arrested.
After receiving these calls, some people looked up contact information for the attorneys who were falsely identified and called their law firms to demand an explanation.
"It started about a month ago," said Lincoln attorney William B. Bates, who practices collection law but said he would never call a debtor to demand payment and threaten incarceration, nor would he ever instruct anyone from his firm to do so.
"The first call I got was from a young lady out in California. She was distraught when she called me. She said she was contacted by phone by someone with a heavy Middle Eastern accent saying that she owed a large sum of money and if she didn't pay it immediately, she would be thrown in jail," Bates said.
At first, Bates said he couldn't figure out why someone from the West Coast would be calling his Illinois office with this problem, "but then she said [the callers] identified themselves as being from the law firm of Woods & Bates - that's my law firm."
Over the next 10 days, Bates said his office received about 20 similar phone calls from around the country, all from people claiming they were contacted by alleged lawyers and paralegals who spoke with thick foreign accents and who identified themselves as calling from Woods & Bates.
"The [extortionist] callers are sometimes male, sometimes female, but always with a heavy Middle Eastern accent," Bates said. "They give various reasons for why [their targets] purportedly owe the money, but all the callers said they were threatened with immediate imprisonment and they were very upset - either distraught or very angry."
Reporting the crime
Bloomington attorney Terry W. Dodds, who does not practice collection law, found himself in the same situation, receiving a surge of angry phone calls in early June from people describing what sounds like the same extortion ring, this time using a different lawyer's name.
Dodds said the extortionists sometimes left a callback number that purported to be in his area code of 309, but he believes it is a "spoof number." When this writer called the "spoof number" in July, it was answered by a recorded message in a woman's voice with an American accent, stating that the person at that number was the seller of a Mercedez Benz on autotrader.com and was using privacy guard to protect his or her confidential information. The recording then asked for the caller to enter a 10-digit callback number, hang up, and expect a return call within 15 seconds.
"They were probably calling from out of the country," Dodds said.
After a few of these random - but obviously related - phone calls, Dodds and Bates both knew they had a problem on their hands and action was necessary to protect possible victims and their own names and reputations.
Dodds quickly called the Bloomington Police Department to report the crime. Shortly thereafter, Bates placed the same phone call and found out for the first time that another lawyer in his area was a similar victim.
"I found out from the [Bloomington] police that Mr. Dodds had the same problem," said Bates.
Bates then called the Illinois Attorney General's Consumer Fraud Division, which he believed might have better jurisdiction over a national, if not international, telephone extortion scam affecting Illinois attorneys.
"They called me back and were very interested in what was going on," Bates said, "but they said they're probably calling from Pakistan, or somewhere other than where they say they are. In reality, there was little, if anything, they could do."
Bates then called a cybercrimes unit of the U.S. Secret Service located in central Illinois, but to no avail. He called the FCC, but they declined to help. The FBI was "interested in knowing the details," Bates said, but not so interested in performing an investigation "unless there's millions and millions of dollars at stake."
ARDC: 'we're not…a police organization'
Bates next posted a warning on the Woods & Bates website informing potential callers of the scam and suggesting they contact their local authorities, which Bates hoped would reduce the number of phone calls bogging down his support staff, who took notes on every call.
"Then I called the [Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission] because I wanted to alert them that if they get calls about Woods & Bates, it wasn't us," Bates said. "I think contacting the ARDC is an important step for any other attorneys who experience this."
Dodds said he called several of the same state and federal agencies seeking an investigation, but none have offered to help. He also posted a warning about the scam on his firm's website.
"I wrote to the AG's office and cc'd it to the FBI and state police," Dodds said, "but to my knowledge, no one is performing an investigation."
ARDC spokesman James J. Grogan said his agency is aware of what he said could become an ongoing problem for Illinois attorneys. He said the agency will take no action against any lawyers or firms unless clear evidence shows a true link between the lawyers and the scam artists.
"It has to be horrible to the practitioner who has spent many years building up a reputation, only to get their name dragged through the mud" by these kinds of extortionists, Grogan said. Unfortunately, however, Grogan said there was little the ARDC can do to investigate the crimes or to protect the lawyers.
"Our abilities are limited because we're not really a police organization," Grogan said. "Since December we've had jurisdiction over non-lawyers who are practicing as lawyers, but these kinds of criminals, they operate under rocks and shadows" and Grogan doubts the ARDC would be able to locate them for purposes of issuing sanctions.
In the meantime, Grogan said any attorneys who experience this problem in the future should contact their local police department. Contacting the ARDC before any complaints are filed is not necessary, he said, because "we're not going to formally charge [any lawyers or law firms] unless there's complicity, or unless there's proof they're pretending it's someone else but they are really the ones doing it."
Bates and Dodds both said they have not received any calls since about late June, but they don't know whether that means the extortion scam has ended, or whether the warnings on their websites are sufficiently apprising victims of the scam before they call the lawyers.