Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

The expansion of the internet has changed the way many potential law firm clients look for legal services. Unfortunately, it has also provided a new venue for legal fraud.

A new white paper published by legal domain name company Dot Law examined a growing trend of fraudsters posing as attorneys or legal consultants online to exploit those seeking legal services.

Authored by Allegravita CEO Simon Cousins and director of accounts Michael Deparini, the report compiled examples from ALM reporting and other news reports detailing fraudulent online legal services across the country. Lou Andreozzi, CEO of Dot Law, said these reports helped the white paper authors dig into what they saw as a growing concern within the legal community. “There was one story here, one story there. We started to look at the trend,” he said.

In many instances, the white paper found that fraudsters had adopted the likeness and personal details of actual practicing attorneys as a means to build trust around a sham legal practice. “Legal scammers have, in some cases, stolen the real photos, names, and curricula vitae of qualified lawyers from legitimate law firm websites, only to post them to their websites as a means to deceive vulnerable consumers,” the white paper noted.

This fraudulent website trend puts practitioners in a bit of a bind. Legitimate attorneys often need to post these details on their websites to attract potential clients, but it also leaves them vulnerable to identity theft, something that can have significant consequences for attorney reputation.

Citing a report from FindLaw, the white paper noted that consumer use of online search engines like Google to identify potential legal representation surged from 19 to 28 percent over the course of 2015, indicating to Cousins and Deparini that these numbers have and will continue to grow in the next few years.

Both Andreozzi and the report’s authors say they believe the low cost and low regulation of setting up a .com domain name contributes to the extent of this fraud. The report found that domain name licensing could range from anywhere between $2 and $10,000 per year, and had no specific requirements for registration.

Dot Law, which licenses .law domain names, intends to offer itself as a solution to this issue.  The .law domain name can only be issued to a bar-licensed attorney, and it requires third-party verification from another barred attorney to confirm the registrant’s identity. However, Andreozzi noted that a .law website isn’t the only way to help consumers distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate legal websites.

“The domain name is a way to do it. By having it in a person’s URL, however, most of the state bar associations have a hotline you can call into to find out if someone is in fact a registered attorney,” he explained. Notably, there are also a few different attorney review and rating websites that people can use to look at others’ experiences dealing with a particular law firm website.

As new domain names expand in use, populations who are most susceptible to fraud may not understand that a .law URL ending could be more, not less, well regulated than a .com domain name. Andreozzi thinks that some outreach may be able to help that.

“Number one is educating lawyers and frankly educating the legal press,” Andreozzi said, noting that many legal writers and bloggers don’t seem to be aware of the prevalence of false legal websites. “The other part is really educating consumers.” Within the next month, Andreozzi said that the Dot Law team plans to work with a group of legal aid organizations to help them get the information and research presented in the white paper out to their constituencies.

Though Dot Law clearly has a stake in the findings of this white paper, Andreozzi noted that the paper is hoping to spark further research in this area. “We wanted to start the dialogue. We feel that this is going to be something that becomes more and more prevalent as people go to the internet,” he noted.