Roddy Tyrrell, publisher of Lawyer.ie and principal of Tyrrell Solicitors reports on a recent example of a ‘dead client scam’ (also known as an inheritance scam), a variant of which has been using the name of his firm.
Recently our firm received contact from a gentleman in Australia who had received an emailed and personalized letter which purported to come from a ‘Jane Tyrrell’ from the firm of ‘Tyrrell Solicitor
Background to the inheritance scam
This particular type of scam obviously shares some of its DNA from the more widely known (and ridiculed) ‘419 scams’ otherwise known as ‘Nigerian Email Scams’ (you know the ones where some recently deposed politician needs your help to move €35m from the Bank of Lagos!).
This inheritance scam is slightly more sophisticated in that the letter purports to come a from a actual law firm (mine!). Not only that, the letter is personalized with the intended target’s contact details and address and also refers to estate of the deceased ‘client’ who shares the same surname as the recipient.
Given that it is by no means unusual that a probate lawyer might seek to trace distant relatives in another jurisdiction who may be rightful heirs of a deceased person, this further underpins its plausibility.
Where did the scammers get his contact details?
This is the easy part. There is a thriving online marketplace on the dark web where email addresses and associated data (including names and home addresses) can be purchased by the bucketload, sometimes at a fraction of a cent per unit (right up to comprehensive identity information including mother’s maiden name and credit card/CCV details etc which can be bought for about $25 a pop right now). The scammers then use a simple mail merge code script to personalize all the emails’ content and can send them out in the tens of thousands at practically zero marginal cost.
How do the scammers make money?
Well, to cut a longer story short, if the intended victim responds positively to this letter, they are often only asked for a very modest amount of €40 or so to cover an ‘administrative or government fee’.
In the context of a a possible €4m+ windfall from a Great Aunt Sally that you never knew existed, it might seem like a small risk even if you are suspicious that this may not be above board (in fact the text of the letter even alludes to the possibility that the whole business may offend your ‘moral ethics’ and that the lawyer herself is up for making a fast buck if you will be her accomplice!).
But in fact it’s not about the money!
The €40 fee is oftentimes really a psyhcological displacement tactic. Once the victim engages, the scammer goes to elaborate lengths to explain how this money transfer is legitimately needed but the victim (or co-conspirator at this stage) feels a sense of confidence, if not superiority, because he quickly decides that such a puny amount is worth the risk even if he considers there is a low >5% probability of getting this €4m+ jackpot (i.e. but better odds than a Lotto ticket after all).
He might also be tempted to determine that this may not be a scam given that it would not be profitable for a scammer to spend so much time in discussions for such a meagre reward.
Now the victim’s brain has been so taxed (rationally and psychologically) with computing the risk of losing a relatively paltry €40, that he is blindsided into subsequently giving the scammer his bank account details in order to receive the big fortune – after all everything has gone okay hitherto.
It is the victim’s bank account details and associated personal data obtained before, during and after the contact that is the real gold for the scammer. In the final denouement, the scammer has stolen her victim’s identity and can empty his bank accounts and splash out in style in Vegas (or Lagos!) with his credit card info to boot!
But I’m no fool!
If you received a letter like the one above, you might say to yourself that just like our alert friend in Australia, you would not be taken in by such a scam even if it is slightly more sophisticated than most. That may be so, but mind you (‘moral ethics’ aside), do not discount the persuasive power of something that is personalized to you and also appeals to basic greed and contains many other plausible elements.
However, you might also think that if you were to try to perpetrate such a fraud yourself that you would be able to make it look a bit more convincing…I mean you would not make an elementary error of using ‘Tyrrell Solictor’ as opposed to the correct ‘Tyrrell Solicitors‘ in the letterhead.
But here’s the kicker…this scam letter is deliberately designed by the scammer to look a bit suspicious!
We call it the ‘feckin’ eejit filter’ …whilst scammers call it the ‘clueless filter’.
The Clueless Filter
In legitimate (shall we say!) business marketing parlance, there is a concept called ‘Shrinking the Sales Funnel’.
For example if I were a mortgage broker, I can quite cheaply get people to fill out my online form on my website. My real cost of sale occurs however, when I must spend personal time dealing with each of these applicants’ needs and endeavouring to sell them as a good bet to the bank lender. Given that lots of people might like to get a mortgage but only a few make the cut these days, it would be in my profitable interest to efficiently screen or disbar ‘no-hopers’ before I have to invest my costly time in them.
The same applies to scammers, only moreso. As stated above, the marginal cost of sending thousands of scam emails is near zero and almost completely automated. By comparison the cost to a scammer of enagaging with the 0.1% of people who do reply is very high and there are a lot of steps stiil to be completed to reach the endgame ‘sale’.
So the scammer must filter out the savvy and cautious by leaving a dodgy scent trail which the vigilant can detect.
…which makes ‘Jane Tyrrell’ a special scammer
The scam letter above is interesting because it combines both the misrepresentation/impersonation plausibility techniques of the traditional conman with the clueless filter techniques of the better known mass broadcast Nigerian 419 scams.
If her Australian target victim (or ‘mark’ in conman parlance) does a Google search for “Tyrrell Solicitor Ireland”, there is a real law firm (our’s!) which shows up in the results and indeed we rank in the top results for many probate-related queries e.g. ‘making a will’ , ‘grant of probate’ etc. This piece of due diligence is more than a victim of a traditional 419 scam would do but the scent trail here actually helps to assuage the target victim’s concerns.
However, a really suspicious and internet-savvy recipient of such a letter might take a random snippet from it and search that in Google.
Indeed if we do a Google search for this random and apparently clumsily constructed excerpted phrase “All the legal documentations to back up your claim as my client’s NEXT OF KIN I shall provided them” a slew of results surface from anti-scam sites showing this phrase to have been used in such scam letters for years. (This is not fecklessness nor illiteracy on the scammer’s part but is part of the sophisticated scent trail or sieve to remove all but the clueless and naive => the feckin’ eejit filter).
And the verdict is…
In conclusion, there is a fairly cunning multi-pronged meld of disparate con tricks afoot here which are designed to catch the cleverer of the clueless cohort. Given that (a) bank account identity theft is the real ultimate aim here and (b) that wealth somewhat broadly correlates with intelligence, this is a feckin’ eejit filter on steroids!
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR RECEIVE A SCAM EMAIL
The first rule is:
Don’t reply to the scammer
The second rule is:
Don’t reply to the scammer!
Tempted as you might be (for whatever reason) to hit the reply button, you should not do so and this only aids and abets an industry which preys on the vulnerable. Apart from that you will be simply letting the scammer’s email marketing software know that your’s is an active email account with a real human user. In addition, depending on your security settings, you may also pass along metadata in the header of your email response from which the scammer can access the IP location of your computer and resell or repurpose this information with a view to stealing your sensitive data from your hard drive and logging data you input into other third party services.
If you do receive a communication purporting to come from a law firm which you regard as suspicious, you can report it to the Law Society of Ireland who in turn can warn the general public and liase with other competent statutory authorities such as the Garda or Data Protection Commissioner as appropriate.