The invoices look legitimate to the unsuspecting eye, but Indianapolis attorney Amy Wright knows something isn’t right about the documents her client received.
Some have official-looking logos or seals at the top or names that are very similar to the authorities that monitor trademark and intellectual property information or send out bankruptcy and debt collection notices.
Wright, who practices at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, says her clients pass along these documents at least once a week, and the number of fraudulent notices that her clients receive has doubled over the years.
“I have to think it’s a very lucrative business sending these out,” Wright said. “We started seeing these a few years ago, but really during the past six months it seems like there have been more of them. So, we’re on the watch and trying to let our clients know.”
Most of the scams are tied to public information, such as patent applications, lawsuits and debt-collection cases. These scams often demand payment for a debt or try to sell a service by giving the impression it’s needed for protection of a particular trademark or domain.
The scams Carmel bankruptcy attorney Erika Singler sees typically involve mortgage foreclosure filers. As she understands the practice, Singler said the scammers look for foreclosures filed on county court dockets to find individuals who are delinquent on home payments. Then, those homeowners receive letters from a purported business saying that the “business” can help rent out the house for enough money to cover the mortgage and sell the house back to the homeowner on a land sale contract or lease with option. All the homeowner needs to do is deed the house to allow for the “business” to draft a lease, collect rent and evict tenants.
“What the scammer then does is rent out the house, but doesn’t pay the mortgage and instead pockets the money and leaves the owner on the hook,” Singler said.
Before 2009, Singler said she saw these types of notices regularly, but the number dropped after a law change that year that alerted homeowners facing foreclosure about fraudulent notices from scammers. In the past year, though, Singler said clients are bringing her more of these notices, though she can’t pinpoint the reason for the increase.
Wright and other IP attorneys say the economy likely plays a part in the increase of these scams in the patent and trademark realm.
“I think it’s probably a combination of things,” Wright said. “It could be economy related, or that companies are starting to become profitable again and these (scammers) think it’s a good time to try this. Or maybe the software and technology to harvest this information is just more advanced now.”
Trademark attorneys have seen notices from the “U.S. Trademark Registration Office” or the “Trademark Monitoring Service,” which don’t exist but could be mistaken for real government offices like the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. These notices offer to monitor the progress of a filed trademark application, provide third-party watch services, renew a registration, or provide another service relating to the trademark. On the patent side, attorneys report their clients have notified them about receiving notices from the “Patent & Trademark Office Register of Patents” that are essentially invoices requesting a filing fee payment.
These documents might appear legitimate because they often include an actual business name or trademark application information that’s been submitted or on file publicly.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office recently posted a notice on its website warning consumers about these types of scams. It encourages people who believe they have received a deceptive solicitation to file an online consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and to forward these solicitations to the USPTO at TMFeedback@uspto.gov.
Joel Tragesser with Frost Brown Todd in Indianapolis says his clients bring him about six to eight of these notices a month – some from the U.S. and others from international entities.
“Many times, these entities will send to larger clients but try to bypass the person in charge,” he said. “They might send them to accounts payable or the financial people who might not know the difference between a legitimate notice or not. I tell all my clients not to pay, and to make sure that everyone in the office knows that.”
When a client gives him one of these notices, Tragesser searches the entity’s name to determine if it’s legitimate. Sometimes, he stumbles upon another lawyer’s blog or public notice alerting readers that the particular entity is operating a possible scam. Usually, that’s about as far as it goes for Tragesser and his clients. He tells them not to pay and to disregard these notices unless they come directly from him or another of the client’s counsel. Legitimate third-party payers sometimes do try to contact clients, but he says the firm typically handles those and it’s not something the client receives without the attorneys first alerting them.
One approach Tragesser takes to prevent clients from receiving these notices is during the application process when he is filling out forms with the applicant’s information. He often lists his own information or leaves that blank so that all contact comes to him. That curbs public record searches using that information to send out these scam notices.
“Obviously, it’s not foolproof because my clients still receive notices,” he said. “But maybe it is successful to some degree since I’ve never had someone pay.”
Like her colleagues say, Wright emphasizes the importance of her clients alerting their financial departments and secretaries about these potential scams. Sometimes, notices are for small amounts and might not register on the radar of suspicious activity for anyone, she said.
“Most of my clients know that any correspondence about trademarks or their legal interests will come from me,” she said. “If it’s not (from me), it could very well be a scam.”•