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Launch of .legal domain name will deter fake firms

New gTLD regime may offer protection to consumers researching solicitors online

9 March 2015

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An explosion of mass consumer claims such as payment protection insurance (PPI) is fuelling the rise in fake law firms, according to a leading online brand protection company.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) figures show reports of fake law firms have increased by 125 per cent in the last two years. The regulator has 701 recorded reports concerning bogus law firms in 2014, an increase from 312 in 2012.

Haydn Simpson, director of brand protection at NetNames, said that the rise in consumer claims is exacerbating the problem.

'Fraudsters are deploying increasingly sophisticated tactics designed to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords or credit card details that target a range of web-enabled devices,' commented Simpson.

'Consumers are therefore increasingly being targeted with phishing emails and text messages to encourage them to sign up, and pay for, a service that they will never receive. This has been fuelled by the rise of mass claims, such as PPI, which have given fraudsters an opportunity to tap into high consumer demand for legal services.'

Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, recently told the BBC that an increase in the number of reported cases might also be behind the rise.

'The type of thing is [when] you receive a text message or email that tells you that you can claim compensation when you have no reason to expect that you can,' said Philip.

'Given that we are raising awareness, it is not completely surprising that we are getting more reports,' he said. 'The Law Society is in the process of launching a system offering additional checks on the identity of conveyancers.'

Domain names

Simpson believes that firms need to take action to ensure data security is safeguarded so as to maintain their reputations and protect consumers.

He suggests that the introduction of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) may assist firms in providing such protection.

A gTLD is one of the categories of top-level domains (TLDs) maintained by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) for use in the Domain Name System of the internet. It is visible to internet users as the suffix at the end of a domain name.

The release of more than 1,000 new gTLDs is seen as the biggest shake-up since the internet began.

'The upcoming launch of the domain name .legal provides law firms with an opportunity to provide greater online security for their customers,' said Simpson. 'Firms can educate and reassure their customers that if they find themselves on a .legal web page, it is the genuine website.'

The Law Society of Scotland recently warned that the number of fake firms is on the up. In February, Capital Defence Lawyers in Edinburgh became subject to identity fraud when they found their details listed on a website for 'Carter Legal Associates'.

Solicitor advocate, John Scott QC at Capital Defence Lawyers, said: 'It's very unsettling to see our information being used to trick people into contacting a fake law firm, and potentially falling for an online scam. The whole experience has been very time-consuming and stressful.

'In addition to the risk to the public there's a reputational risk for us having our names linked to a 'firm' which exists solely to scam unsuspecting members of the public. We would recommend that anyone intending to contact a solicitor or law firm checks the validity of the firm on the Law Society's website.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

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