Business

Legal career 'hit by vishing scam'

Karen Mackie
Image caption Karen Mackie says she is devastated about what happened

A solicitor has told the BBC that being tricked into transferring £750,000 of client money to criminals has left her life in ruins.

Sole practitioner Karen Mackie has been suspended from working, declared bankrupt, and faces the prospect of losing her home.

She is the latest victim of "vishing" in which criminals pose as bank security teams.

Criminals are targeting legal practices overseeing large sums of money.

The crime sees con-artists call innocent people and, posing as bank employees, persuade them first that the victims' money is at risk. They tell them that to secure their funds they should transfer them to a "safe" account.

Legal firms are targeted by the gangs as they have large amounts of money from clients in order to complete transactions such as property purchases.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has told BBC's Money Box programme that every week, three to four solicitor practices receive these calls. Some of those conned have transferred six and seven figure sums to crooks.

On the line

Mrs Mackie's case started at the end of April. Already facing personal financial pressures, she said she received a call, purporting to be from her bank, which suggested funds in her clients' accounts were at risk.

"This lady introduced herself as Joanne Howard from NatWest saying that one of my accounts had been compromised and that I should phone the number on the back of my debit card, which is the helpline. We ended the call and I then phoned that number," she said.

Ringing immediately was Mrs Mackie's downfall. Instead of contacting NatWest security, she connected straight back to the criminals - there is a delay in landline phones clearing the previous call.

The criminals then convinced her that her funds were at risk and that the "bank" would call back the following day to transfer her money to "safe" accounts.

When a frightened Mrs Mackie, of Surrey, took the call the following day, she moved £734,000 into new accounts - in tranches of up to £99,000. Shortly afterwards she became suspicious, alerted the police and her bank and nearly £222,000 was retrieved by NatWest. The rest had been withdrawn by the crooks.

'Devastating'

Image copyright Thinkstock

Protecting client money is one of the golden rules of being allowed to practise as a solicitor. Her failure to do so, has led to Karen Mackie being suspended from the profession, though ironically she did what she did, thinking she was protecting client funds.

Her professional indemnity insurers have refused to pay out on the grounds that if she had not been dishonest herself, she had effectively "condoned dishonesty activities" by others.

The insurers told Money Box in a statement: "Ms Mackie is a solicitor who represents a risk to the public and cannot be trusted with holding client money."

Mrs Mackie's suspension by the SRA means she cannot work as a solicitor again without taking more exams and being given clearance by the SRA. Although her personal financial troubles did not start with this episode, she has now been declared bankrupt and is having trouble meeting her mortgage commitments.

"I miss my work incredibly. I feel dreadful for my clients because it is such personal, family work," she said.

"The whole situation has just been devastating. I'm also receiving counselling. I'm on various medication for anxiety and depression."

Her suspension has enabled her clients to have access to the Solicitors Compensation Scheme which has now refunded their losses.

The story comes in the week that Financial Fraud Action UK (FFA), the body which co-ordinates the financial industry's response to cyber crime, reported that UK financial fraud losses rose 6% to £325m in the first six months of 2015.

Telephone banking fraud losses rose by 95% to £14.4m in the same period. The FFA said that a further £300m of "remote" banking fraud, which includes online and telephone banking crimes, was stopped.

There have been repeated criticisms that neither the police nor the banks are doing enough to protect the public from these crimes. BT recently announced that it was cutting the delay in cutting off landline calls to two seconds.

Listen to the full story on Money Box on BBC Radio 4 at 1200 BST on Saturday 3 October.

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