The changes overwhelming every lawyer’s legal practice in the past two months were unimaginable at the start of this year. Disruption breeds opportunity. Among the first to seize upon the confusion, disruption and fear brought on by COVID-19 were the Internet scammers.
While various scams have been victimizing Internet users since the dawn of the Internet, the disruption caused by COVID-19 makes lawyers working from home, perhaps for the first time, more vulnerable. This article will identify some of the most common ploys and how to avoid making your law firm a victim.
A law firm’s computer system is a vast repository of confidential client information, billing, accounting, and banking records, and private information about firm personnel. Scammers are constantly trying to penetrate a law firm’s usual security procedures to access this valuable information.
One of the most common practices used by these fraudsters is phishing for information by using deceptive emails to get past the law firm’s security wall. Phishing emails may ask the user to disclose certain security information to get “COVID updates”, “COVID-related medical reports” or “financial assistance for law firm’s suffering COVID-related business loses.” It has been reported that many of these emails are made to appear like legitimate inquiries from government agencies or organizations with official sounding names or initials. A law firm employee working from home may not be exercise adequate care, respond to the email and inadvertently disclose his or her personally identifiable information, a law firm’s EIN number or confidential bank account information.
The impulse to help those individuals or families stricken by COVID-19 has been exploited with the rise of phony charities seeking contributions for local victims or national medical efforts. These sophisticated scams may use legitimate-sounding solicitations to direct the lawyer to a totally fabricated website supporting the solicitation. As protection, the user can seek out the online listings and ratings of charities that can be searched before considering a contribution. An electronic contribution made by the individual or the law firm to a fake charity quickly disappears in cyberspace to untraceable bank accounts anywhere in the world.
Of potentially greater risk to a law practice is the using of phishing emails to insert malware into the individual’s computer, which may lead to access to a vast array of confidential information stored on the law firm’s systems. The most basic malware will seek out an individual’s private information, banking information, Social Security number and the like. Another danger is the implanting of a keylogger Trojan virus. This type of malware will record every keystroke a user enters on the computer. The goal of this virus is to capture private information like passwords, credit card numbers or banking information. A lawyer dealing with client confidential information may also put a client’s confidential business or legal issues at risk of exposure.
A law firm dealing with a larger client’s valuable competitive information or intellectual property may also be targeted by nation-state sponsored spies. These motivated spies will repeatedly use phishing tactics on every publicly disclosed lawyer affiliated with the law firm. It only takes one lawyer’s lack of care while working at home to provide a key which may expose a client’s secrets and create liability for the law firm.
The individual lawyer can avoid many of these phishing tactics by using common sense precautions. Emails from unfamiliar sources should be approached with caution. Attachments or links should never be opened unless the recipient is certain the source is legitimate. One easy precaution is to look at the email address of the sender. Many potential scams are sent from exotic or unfamiliar domain addresses. Some purported “charities” or “businesses” will use general Gmail or similar free public accounts.
By using a keylogger Trojan virus a bad actor may find out the details of a pending real estate or business transaction. The Internet spy with access to a keylogger Trojan virus will know the details and timing of pending financial transfers. A law firm lawyer or administrator may receive payment instructions for disbursing the proceeds of such business transactions which may alter or contradict prior client instructions. A firm should confirm the new instructions with its client prior to any payment. The failure of a law firm to keep tight administrative procedures in place despite “work-at-home” government orders may fall victim to such scams.
How can a law firm minimize the risk of becoming a victim of these scams while its workforce is scattered in home offices, often across state or national boundaries? One of the first safeguards is to strictly prohibit lawyers from using cell phones, text messages and personal email accounts for transacting confidential law firm business. The habits of casual use of these methods for personal communication puts a law firm’s valuable confidential information at risk. The use of any personal devices or unsecure email accounts is inevitable in the busy lives of many lawyers. However, such communications with clients should be limited to scheduling meetings or telephone calls or inconsequential remarks. The personal computers used by a firm’s lawyers should always meet the security standards set by the firm’s IT professionals.
Another easily implemented security precaution is to require the frequent changes of computer passwords by all individuals having access to the law firm’s systems. The ideal password should be at least 12 to 15 characters long. It should mix upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols in a random order. Common words found in a dictionary are easily broken. In addition, common sequential paths (abc or 1234) or keyboard paths (asdfg) are easily identified and cracked by Internet thieves.
Law firms should also seriously consider establishing a VPN for conducting any legal work remotely. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a private network that is implemented across shared or public networks. Effectively, each computer acts as if connected to a private network with an effective point-to-point connection. Users of the VPN may be connected by encrypted communications, thus allowing the secure sharing of information to users connected from home or remote branch offices. Access to the VPN can also be restricted by the use of passwords or other security measures.
For further information about these issues, please review the useful report “Cybersecurity Alert: Tips for Working Securely While Working Remotely” dated March 12, 2020, prepared by the New York State Bar Association Committee on Technology and the Legal Profession.
Peter Brown is the principal at Peter Brown & Associates. He is a co-author of “Computer Law: Drafting and Negotiating Forms and Agreements” (Law Journal Press).