There's only one problem: Walsh & Padilla doesn't exist.
The Houston Bar Association, in a lawsuit filed in state district court in Harris County, alleges that Walsh & Padilla is fictitious and its website touting estate planning, probate and other legal services is an elaborate front for a scam to fleece the elderly, including one victim who had $14,000 drained from a bank account. The attorneys in the photos look so lawyerly because they are lawyers -- except at other law firms, from where the photos were stolen. The site even includes a working phone number, with an automated answering system that patches callers through to the voice mail of top partner "Jonathan Walsh." (Calls to that number seeking comment were not returned.)
The scam has an unusual level of sophistication, nothing like the easy to spot email entreaties for money, said Mary Kate Raffetto, a commercial litigator at Beck Redden, who has done much of the legwork to track down the scam artists. "Someone with some know how-has done this and put this together," she said.
The website remains up as the bar association, which traced the operation to South Africa, tries to locate the web server and deliver the restraining order. "The more we investigate, you see they're trying to cover their tracks to prevent you from finding out who hosts the site," said Raffetto.
Walsh & Padilla came to the attention of the bar association recently when its president, Alistair Dawson, received a call from the Houston law firm Jackson Walker. The photo of one of its partners, Curt Langley, appeared on the Walsh & Padilla site, but over the name "Jonathan Walsh, B.A., J.D."
That was discovered by a recipient of one of the letters about life insurance proceeds who became suspicious, did a reverse search on the Jonathan Walsh photo, found Langley and notified him. "I've been telling everyone here they wanted to use someone who is good looking and has an honest looking face," said Langley.
William R. Hayes, an estate planning and probate lawyer with Hayes & Wilson in Houston, also started getting calls from Canada and discovered, much to his surprise, that his firm's website had been cloned by Walsh & Padilla. One of the calls Hayes received was from a Canadian who was contacted by Walsh & Padilla under the guise of a relative who died in Houston and left a life insurance policy of $6.2 million.
"They changed the name, put in a new (phone) number," he said, but the design, courtroom photos and even the blue/brown/gold color scheme are the same. Even the links on cloned website take visitors to the biographies of Hayes & Wilson lawyers, including Hayes and his partner Lisa Wilson, to make it look like they work for Walsh & Padilla.
"If you do enough clicking, you will find most of us on it," he said.
"Walsh & Padilla also used photos of three lawyers and one firm administrator at Allen Matkins, a Los Angeles-based real estate law firm. All the names were changed, according to the lawsuit.
"The case serves as a reminder that if something seems too good to be true it probably is," Raffetto said. If a lawyer, financial advisor or someone else says they've got money for you, she said, "Be very wary."
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Elaborate scam sets up fake 'law firm' to bilk elderly