LexInsight Blog

The Lawyer as an Agent: Verification of Documents in an Age of Electronic Uncertainty

Jun 7, 2018 7:00:00 AM / by Oluwole (Wally) Onifade King

Age-of-eDiscovery

Virtually everyone with an internet connection is now familiar with the 419* brand of internet scam. 419 is a simple yet very effective scheme for convincing gullible people to part with their hard earned cash. For those who may be late to the game or who haven’t checked their Spam box in a while here is a compressed version of the scam’s format (the version you receive may have slight variations):

An unknown Uncle of yours who was a soldier in the army and who was a member of the UN peace keeping force to Sierra Leone had just passed away from complications associated with Ebola Fever. During his time in the army he had distinguished himself and had quickly risen through the ranks attaining the lofty position of Major General; by virtue of his position, your Uncle was able to amass a princely fortune in diamonds and monetary loot from several despotic dictators, which he stashed in various accounts using various aliases.

The person now contacting you is a Barrister Ikenna, a trusted confidante of your Uncle who after a comprehensive investigation had discovered you to be the only surviving blood relative of your aforementioned Uncle.

Apart from his love for your Uncle and his desire to see that your Uncle’s properties are properly disposed, Barrister Ikenna is also under a Legal obligation to oversee the proper disposition of all monies and sundry properties belonging to a deceased client and to ensure that such properties are securely transferred to the client’s rightful heir who in this case happens to be you. Barrister Ikenna further informs you that your Uncle has a total sum of $25m stored in 5  banks and another fortune in raw uncut diamonds stored in secret safes across the country; these treasures must be repatriated to you immediately or you risk having it impounded under intestacy Laws of the host Country.

Barrister Ikenna’s actions are however not totally altruistic, he offers you the chance of retrieving your Uncle’s properties but you must immediately pay the clearance fees from the bank and other miscellaneous expenses associated with transportation and PR totaling a sum of $25k and another $35K to Barrister Ikenna being payment for his services once you’ve received your Uncle’s properties.

You will be surprised by how many people still fall for this simple yet somewhat persuasive tall-tale; however with a lot of people wising up to their antics and ignoring or quickly hitting the delete button to forestall the off-chance of being tempted by the possibility coupled with the authorities constantly looking over their shoulders and the saturation of the fraud market by every high school kid with an internet connection, life as an internet scammer has become incredibly difficult. So what is a resourceful scammer going to do?

Step the game up of course!

In the world of Internet scamming, innovation and sophistication have become the order of the day, after all the payoff is well worth the risk. From documents that perfectly mimic the original, to cloned websites and phone numbers, the proliferation of technology has ensured that the sophistication hitherto reserved to fortune 500 companies are now easily accessible to any would be cyber café and basement scammer and the scammer’s axis of evil grows wider every day sucking in hitherto honest hardworking individuals with the promise of easy ‘maga money’; from the high school kid looking to impress his girlfriend, to the unemployed computer geek operating from his mother’s basements to the overworked and underpaid bank manager, the corrupt politician and even the lil ‘ol lady looking to leave a gift for her grandchildren, alliances of corruption are being forged across hitherto diametrically opposite sides of the table ensuring that transactions conducted over the net have become a landmine fraught with lies and uncertainty, the issue is how to ensure that the person on the other end is the good guy.

Queue the Lawyer…

A lawyer at negotiations is akin to placing a gun on the negotiating table, everyone knows that serious business is afoot. When a client approaches a lawyer in his representative capacity as per a business under consideration with a willingness to expend necessary time and resources to get the business done, considerable responsibility and pressure is placed on the Lawyer to ensure that every ‘T’ is crossed and ‘i’ dotted; apart from simple mistakes associated with reviewing huge volumes of documents, a client who is currently dealing with a sophisticated fraudster may have been fooled by clever forgeries; the client thus places an incredible responsibility on the lawyer to detect any irregularity and advise him accordingly, a simple analogy would suffice to highlight this dilemma:

The Oil business for example is one in which fraudsters thrive, it is a high stakes high return enterprise in which a single successful deal could place the new Lawyer on easy street till the year runs out; suppose a new Lawyer has been approached by a huge client, his instructions are simple:  get me a credible supplier for 2 million barrels of Colonial Grade JP54 Jet Fuel, to be shipped from Any World Safe Port (AWSP). If the Lawyer succeeds, he stands a chance of receiving the biggest payout of his young career, a failure on the other hand could ruin his reputation and lose him a valuable client, not knowing anyone in the oil business and not wanting to lose such a huge payout, what is he supposed to do?

Arguably, the Lawyer-Client relationship is not a Principal-Agent relationship per se, however as any practicing Attorney would attest, once a rapport is established between a client and his Attorney, the client often times comes to rely on his attorney for advice on issues ranging from the trivial or mundane to the very complex, thus the Lawyer’s duties often cross sharply with that of an Agent; if the Lawyer in our analogy lacks the wherewithal to approach a foreign partner directly his next most efficient recourse is to the internet and here his problems begin.

There are no fail safe method to totally eliminate the risk of doing business locally not to mention internationally or over the net; the closest is to meet one’s potential partners one on one and even that is fraught with dangers.

So the Lawyer as an Agent on behalf of a client wishing to avoid the various pitfalls associated with transacting business with a new unknown partner may try to avoid dealing with a smart scam artist by observing the following routines:

  1. Talk to other Lawyers

A colleague may have had a similar situation or may know people in the industry who are capable of executing the deal. Apart from speaking with a would-be partner in person, nothing beats a referral from someone who has had previous experience dealing with the same issue. In the absence of someone who has had the same issue then move to the second step

  1. Conducting an internet search

Always begin your search at the official website of the country in which you wish to transact business; most countries now have a business directory with a list of reputable companies and their websites in various fields of industry, this way you eliminate the off-chance of contacting a cloned website.

  1. Conduct a Background Check

Once you have sorted through the maze of companies on the Country’s official Business Directory and their websites, you should conduct an official background check on your chosen company. This can easily be done by contacting the corporate affairs commission of the country either via email or via a phone call (Some charge a small fee for conducting such a search). The Corporate Affairs Commission of most countries will usually have the names of the Board of Directors of the Company, the company’s size, tax returns and general capability for executing the business under consideration.

  1. Contact the Company

An official email from your company to the potential partner is often very expedient; your first email must introduce your company and the reason for which you’re seeking the relationship. You must also immediately seek a liaison officer with whom you can par le and exchange phone numbers and contact addresses.

  1. Call

Call the company’s liaison person and start your conversation by asking searching questions in a friendly way, such questions are designed to test their knowledge of current affairs in the country, questions such as how is work today, do you like working for the company, what is the weather like today, how is your president what is his name again? What time is it out there, did you read my mail etc. are designed to test the person’s location, intelligence and grasp of the issue under consideration. Secondly, ask basic information about the company, response must be in line with the information already acquired from the Corporate Affairs Commission. Thirdly, assure the Liaison person that you are a credible partner and that you will only act to the mutual benefit of both companies. Finally exchange direct lines with the liaison person, that way you have an ally with whom you can seek updates in case of emergencies.

These steps are designed to help reduce the chances of dealing with a smart fraudster and the possibility of being seduced by a cloned website; remember however that nothing beats physically going to the country in which you wish to transact business and having a face to face meeting with your potential partners.

Topics: For Contract Attorneys

Oluwole (Wally) Onifade King

Written by Oluwole (Wally) Onifade King

Wally holds three masters degrees in Law and has seen practice on 3 continents; he is currently a Legal Consultant specializing in International Business Transactions and Oil and Gas.