Ko-Ko. Well, a nice mess you've got us into, with your nodding head and the deference due to a man of pedigree!
Pooh-Bah. Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
— W.S. Gilbert, The Mikado
Unknown scam artists, possibly Canadian or possibly Australian or possibly neither, have apparently "borrowed" the likenesses of several UK solicitors without permission in order to implement an email fraud scheme targeting attorneys.
Earlier today, Toronto Trial Warrior Antonin Pribetic re-tweeted a link to this post: Law Society of British Columbia Warning Re Real Estate Fraud Involving Fake Law Firm Wagner Elliot LLP. The story describes a con in which attorneys are persuaded to accept phony checks for deposit in their client trust accounts, then tricked into disgorging the "funds" before they discover that the funds do not in fact exist.
The success of the scheme depends in part on the lawyer-victim's belief that he/she has been contacted by a fellow practitioner, an attorney with the Toronto law offices of "Wagner Elliot LLP." That firm does not in fact exist. It does, however, have a nice looking website.
- As we will see below, "Wagner Elliot" is not real, but the contents of its website are derived directly—plagiarized, really—from the actual site of an actual law firm. For better or worse, the fake site's air of verisimilitude is enhanced by its being liberally sprinkled with the sort of empty rhetoric beloved of law firm websites the world over: Wagner Elliot is "committed to providing commercial legal advice of the highest quality at a sensible cost," and promises service that is "personal, proactive and practical." Just like everybody else.
- The lovely building shown atop this post also appears on the Wagner Elliot LLP homepage, implicitly as a depiction of the firm's headquarters. The file name is "Building1.jpg". No such building is located at the Toronto address given by the faux firm. Research by Mr. Pribetic suggests that the address given on the site is actually that of either a housing project or a gas station. (The use on lawyer websites of photos of attractive buildings not otherwise connected to the lawyers in question was recently the subject of deserved scorn from Miami practitioner Brian Tannebaum.)
Intrigued, I undertook a bit of research of my own. A WHOIS search revealed that the "wagnerelliot.com" domain was first registered less than a month ago, by unknown Australian interests giving their address as a "Locked Bag" in Melbourne. The score so far: not real lawyers, and not even real Canadians.
Antonin Pribetic's inquiries went further, turning up what he initially described as "a UK mirror site," for Alan Lowe & Co., a firm of UK solicitors. If you compare the Lowe site (here) with the Wagner Elliot site (here) you will find them to be nearly identical, right down to the homepage appearance of "Building1.jpg".
Still intrigued, curious how such parallel sites might be explained, and curious how if at all these firms might be related, I decided to search for other uses of the phrase "providing commercial legal advice of the highest quality at a sensible cost." That search led to a third site: that of another firm of solicitors, Davis & Co., located at the same address as Alan Lowe & Co.
I must confess that I initially leapt to the conclusion that all three of these firms are fictitious. Some further inquiry, however, quickly led me to a different conclusion: The fake firm of Wagner Elliot LLP has stolen its identity wholesale from the real firms of Mr. Davis and Mr. Lowe, without those gentlemen's knowledge or consent. So complete is the theft of those gentlemen's identities that their photographs have been incorporated in to the phony Wagner Elliot site, under false names.
- Here you can view a photograph of the real Alan Lowe, solicitor. Here you can view the same photograph, now identified as that of the entirely fictional "Wagner Elliot." Mr. "Elliot" has even been given Mr. Lowe's biography. A slightly different photo of Mr. Lowe, as himself, appears on the Davis & Co. site.
- Davis & Co. is the firm of solicitor Mark Davis, whose photograph in his own right at his own firm can be seen here. That same photo appears on the site of the Lowe firm (scroll down), as these two solicitors maintain a consulting relationship with one another. That same photo also appears, as you have no doubt guessed, on the "Wagner Elliot" site, where it is now identified as that of "Marcus" Davis. This Marcus fellow is credited, falsely, as "the author of ‘Bareboat Charters' published by Lloyd's of Canada Press." The genuine article, Mr. Mark Davis, is in fact the author of that treatise, now in its 2nd edition and published by Lloyds of London.
- Solicitor Andy Coyle, who also consults with Mr. Lowe and who practices as well with the offices of Lennon & Co., is also purloined by "Wagner Elliot." He is given his own name on the faux site, although his school has been changed from the University of Liverpool to the University of Toronto.
Are there lessons to be derived from this sordid little affair? Of course. Among them, I would include these:
- "Prospective clients" who approach via unsolicited email should be viewed with suspicion, and dealt with very carefully or not at all.
- The artistic verisimilitude lent by a pretty website should be viewed with suspicion, and dealt with very carefully or not at all. In fact, no matter what the marketing mavens would like you to believe, the credibility value of any law firm website, no matter how qualified the attorneys behind it may be in real life, is statistically equivalent to zero. Direct contact, with real people, and with real and objective confirmation of skills and experience, is ultimately the only reliable measure of such things. Everything else is just shiny trinketry, distracting at best and, as here, actively deceptive at worst.
- Watch your back in the Internet-connected world. This case demonstrates not only how easy it is to create a persuasive set of false appearances online, but also how easily You Yourself may be purloined. The wholesale repurposing of Mr. Lowe's website into the fake "Wagner Elliot" site means that the parallels between them are readily discoverable by a simple Google search. But who would think to make that search on a regular basis? The risk that your identity, and your professional and personal integrity, will be misrepresented online is real and ever-present, and troublingly difficult to catch or prevent.
So there we have it: an email confidence game, carried out by persons unknown, is sufficiently profitable that it warrants the investment required to create—to plagiarize, really—the appearance of legitimacy that a website is presumed to supply. The scandal of the thing is compounded by the brazen misappropriation of the names, likenesses, and reputations of at least three real practitioners. I would hope that no actual damage has been done to those gentlemen, who must be counted among the victims of this scheme. I would hope as well that the actual wrongdoers can be identified and brought to heel, although I confess my expectation is that they have already moved merrily on to their next unsuspecting targets.