The State Bar of California is warning citizens about potential fraudsters looking to take advantage of victims of deadly fires raging across the state.
The group says residents should be on the lookout for fraudulent legal advice, especially regarding insurance or landlord disputes, employment issues, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) applications.
“In the wake of the fires, there is also the risk of victims being approached in person, by mail, email or other means, by people posing as attorneys,” state bar officials wrote in a release sent on Nov. 15. “Consumers must carefully check that people offering legal services are legitimate and licensed to provide such services.”
It’s not unusual for the California state bar to issue fraud alerts during wildfires, and this notice comes just a little more than a year after a similar one was issued. But the Camp and Woolsey fires have reportedly burned a total of 239,362 acres, and the shear scope of the disaster means it’s ripe for fraud, according to authorities and analysts.
“I understand that firefighters have been dealing with a dozen and a half large fires simultaneously, including the largest in the state’s recorded history,” Neil J. Wertlieb, Adjunct Professor at UCLA School of Law and Expert Witness on Attorney Ethics, told Bloomberg Law in an email Nov. 15. “Presumably, such large scale devastation affects more people across the state than in prior disasters. I would expect that, unfortunately, such large scale tragedies create even more opportunities for fraudsters to act.”
After disasters, distraught people tend to fall prey to those participating in “ambulance chasing,” according to Gregory C. Keating, a professor at the USC Gould School of Law.
“They might fork over fees they’ll never see again to shady parties who may or may not actually be members of the bar. They might agree to exclusive representation with some lawyer,” he told Bloomberg Law Nov. 16. “Offhand, one would guess that predatory behavior in connection with insurance proceeds or obtaining the full panoply of government benefits is what a lawyer would promise.”
The state bar’s most recent fraud alert, which warned the public to “watch for and report potential legal fraud in response to recent fires,” contained one particularly important piece of advice regarding hiring attorneys in the wake of major disasters, according to Wertlieb, former Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the California State Bar and current Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association.
“Before hiring an attorney, especially in such an urgent and stressful situation, consumers must carefully check that the people offering legal services are legitimate and licensed to provide such services,” he told Bloomberg Law. “The Fraud Alert recommends looking up an attorney on the State Bar’s website, either by name or attorney number, to confirm that the person claiming to be an attorney is in fact licensed to practice law.”
Additionally, Wertlieb said the State Bar of California’s attorney search webpage “indicates whether the attorney has any record of discipline.”
“Experience matters” when it comes to choosing legal representation after a devastating fire, according to Thomas W. Henderson, Shareholder at Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardine in Colorado.
“As an attorney that has handled many forest fire cases, both against the parties responsible for starting the fires, as well as against insurance companies that fail to pay what they owe to their own policyholders that suffered losses from fires, I appreciate the fraud warning just issued by the California State Bar, he told Bloomberg Law on Nov. 16. “I urge victims of these devastating fires to carefully choose their legal representation.”