A solicitor has been suspended from working, declared bankrupt, and faces losing her home after she unwittingly handed over £750,000 to a vishing (or voice phishing) scam.
Sole practitioner, Karen Mackie, was fooled by a new wave of criminals who target legal practices, whilst posing as bank security teams.
The con works when the grifters call legal firms, and pose as bank employees to convince the victims that their money is at risk. They then tell them that to secure the funds, they need to transfer them to a certain 'secure' account.
The scam targets solicitors as they often have large amounts of cash at hand, held on behalf of their clients, which allows them to complete legal transactions such as property purchases.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has said that around three to four practices receive these calls per week, and that those successfully conned have ended up transferring six and even seven figure sums to the perpetrators.
Mrs Mackie's incident occurred in April. Already worrying about personal financial pressures, she received a call purporting to be from her bank, which informed her that her clients funds were at risk.
“This lady introduced herself as Joanne Howard from NatWest saying that one of my accounts had been compromised and that I should phone the number on the back of my debit card, which is the helpline. We ended the call and then I phoned the number”, she said.
Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that they'd be OK in this situation, as you've been told to call your bank's official helpline, so what's the danger? Well unbeknownst to most there is a delay in landlines clearing the previous call, and the scammers exploit this to trick their prey. Mrs Mackie got off the phone, and called her bank straight away – unaware that she'd been connected straight back to the criminals.
She was then further convinced that her money was in danger, and was advised by the 'bank' that they'd call back the next day to transfer the money to a safe account.
The following say, with the foundation of trust laid from the day before, Mrs Mackie then took the promised call from the 'bank' and transferred a total of £734,000. Shortly afterwards the penny dropped and she became suspicious, alerting the police and NatWest, who were able to retrieve £222,000.
Protecting client money is one of the tenets of solicitors, and her failure to do so has led to a suspension by the SRA, which means she cannot work as a solicitor again without taking exams, and being specifically cleared by the SRA.
Further to that (and her existing money worries being made worse), her professional indemnity insurer has refused to pay out for the gaffe on the grounds that, if she'd not been intentionally dishonest, she'd effectively “condoned dishonest activities” by others.
There is at least some solace for her clients, who have had their money refunded by the Solicitors Compensation Scheme.