Both the Law Society of Scotland and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) have published warnings about the rise of bogus law firms across the UK. The SRA notes that over 700 reports of such fake firms have been made in the past year, an annual increase of over 25%, and the Law Society of Scotland have noted similar patterns emerging. But what can law firms do if they’re subjected to what is effectively online identity theft?
Here we look at the main issues and examples that have arisen and provide 5 key tips for great online reputation management.
Fake Law Firms in the UK – A Rising Concern
The issue of fake law firms in the UK was not even on the radar of regulatory bodies as a risk a couple of years ago back in 2013, as Legal Futures reports, but in 2015 it’s now one of the main risks (alongside others such as misuse of law firm money/assets and cybercrime threats, all reflected in trends in other markets).
The main way fake firms are being conceived is through the cloning of genuine law firm or solicitor websites. As the Law Society of Scotland notes, “[q]ualified solicitors are increasingly being targeted by fraudsters using their details on fake law firm websites.”
Bogus Law Firms in Scotland
In Scotland, one of the serious recent examples concerned Capital Defence Lawyers in Edinburgh which had their details listed on a website for “Carter Legal Associates”.
Solicitor advocate, John Scott QC at Capital Defence Lawyers, summed up the issues and concerns: “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.”
Bogus Law Firms in England & Wales
And for England & Wales, one of the most serious recent examples actually concerns a business set up as if in Scotland, but which has cloned an English firm. The scammers in question at "RTS Legal" had built a website which was apparently cloned from the website of genuine law firm Lupton Fawcett LLP (trading as Lupton Fawcett Denison Till) without their knowledge or consent – and this included photos of genuine staff at the firm, with their names, status and practice areas.
Law Society Advice - Immediate Action Required
If you ever discover that you, a solicitor colleague or your firm are being fraudulently misrepresented elsewhere online, best advice (from the Law Society of Scotland) is for you to “report identity fraud using the Action Fraud website and get in touch with the Society so that we can bring it quickly to the attention of the Police Scotland economic crime units who have been successful in shutting down similar pages.”
You should also consider adding a prominent temporary message to your website and social media channels warning clients and potential clients about the position if there is a risk they could give confidential information or payments to an imposter firm.
And for any members of the public looking for a solicitor, the best guidance (applicable to both Scotland and England & Wales is to look at the ‘find a solicitor’ section of either the Law Society of Scotland (click here) or The Law Society (E&W) (click here) websites to check their credentials. The information is updated in real time, and only solicitors who are currently entitled to practice are listed. The SRA advise any members of the public to conduct their own due diligence by checking the authenticity of the correspondence by contacting the law firm directly by reliable and established means e.g. by contacting the SRA to find out if individuals or firms are regulated and authorised by the SRA and verify an individual's or firm's practising details.
5 top tips for handling your online reputation management against bogus law firms
So against that background, here are our 5 top tips for handling your law firm’s own online reputation management whether to act preventatively against future identity theft or to act to stop existing identity theft:-
- Google your firm. Where do you appear in search? What appears? List everything you think needs to be done to ensure those results look as good as they possibly can and either start taking action to sort (whether yourself, with your inhouse digital marketing team, or with your digital marketing agency (like us));
- If anyone else is trying to capitalise on your firm’s name, consider SEO improvements to your main website and other platforms (such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ etc) to ensure you’ll always be leapfrogging them. If that’s not enough, consider setting up a small brand-based Google Adwords (PPC) campaign, perhaps with your own prominent warning against other bogus firms in the description if needed. It’s possible that the bogus firm is also bidding on your brand related keywords in PPC, but if their copy refers to your brand and is misleading for consumers, Google should be able to assist (for more, see Google’s Adwords Trademark Policy). And don’t forget Bing Ads for completeness if a comprehensive job is required;
- Try to ensure you dominate the first couple of pages of Google for your own brand related searches – don’t be complacent about getting only the first few results. There are many opportunities to acquire listings elsewhere other than on your website (eg through local citationsSEO work;
- Claim as many social media profiles for your brand as possible, whether or not they’ll be crucial to your social media marketing success. Sites like NameChk or KnowEmcan show you at a glance immediately which social media networks are available for your brand name(s), with links out to those platforms for you to register them. Take this one step further, instruct us and we’ll be happy to set up your brand on 40+ social networks for a competitive price.
- Set up regular email alerts for mentions of your firm’s name or your main fee earner’s names online. One of the best tools for this is Google Alerts which can tell you as soon as a new mention is posted online (or indeed as a weekly or less frequent update). This will allow you to take remedial action as soon as possible without waiting for a disaster involving an actual client.
We have a more detailed guide to online reputation management for law firms available on request – please do get in touch to request a copy.
Online Reputation Management – As Important as Offline?
Ultimately, your online reputation (whether in Google search results or in social media posts or other digital communications) is becoming just as important, if not more important, than your offline reputation for your business to continue to thrive in this digital age. It is hoped the people (or indeed perhaps computer programs) behind these new bogus law firms are brought to swift justice by the regulatory authorities, but if not then it’s up to the digital teams for the firms affected to really get a hold of their online presence and ensure there are fewer ways for the bogus firms to be any real threat - at least online; there is still the possibility that these bogus firms make misrepresentations to clients or other connections of firms through offline means such as via phone calls, in which case action from the regulatory authorities is crucial.
Our Digital Marketing Manager, Dave Kerr, said:-
“Firms which have no web presence at all, or those who have an outdated site dating back years, are most at risk. The fake Capital Defence Lawyers site was extremely sophisticated in both design and functionality, as well as SEO.
Even if one was familiar with Capital Defence Lawyers, the most obvious conclusion would be that this was a new firm which had merely copied the design of their site.
At MLT we speak of ‘owning’ the web space relevant to your offering. In light of the rise of fake firms, it’s vital that you also own the web space relevant to your brand. Needless to say, the best way to do this is to put in place a solid, optimised site of your own.”
A Word on Negative Online Reviews
“And note that there’s a big difference between having to eradicate bogus law firms and trying to take down negative reviews about your firm. If you have received a negative review about your firm, it’s best to deal with this sooner rather than later, to minimise any negative impact of the review. But we would recommend you contact the client privately, if possible, to discuss/rectify rather than attempting to remove the review. In addition, you should reply with a comment along the lines of:
“Thanks for your feedback, and we’re sorry you feel this way. One of the team will be in touch shortly to discuss how we can rectify this. Alternatively, please feel free to contact us directly on xxxx, and we’ll do what we can to help.”
It’s important, when dealing with negative reviews, to publicly acknowledge it and apologise. This portrays to other users a sense of responsibility and customer care from the brand. If you attempt to remove such a review, there’s a chance of that backfiring potentially with much wider consequences. For instance we saw one example recently where the aggrieved client who had posted a negative review of one of our contacts (who insisted on removing it) became so frustrated with the removal of his review that he launched a tirade of further negative reviews. On the other hand, if someone is trying to steal your law firm’s identity then it’s essential that takedown becomes the main urgent approach.
While some negative reviews are inevitable, they provide a chance to assess your customer care strategy. Good law firms respond to negative reviews proactively. Great law firms take steps to make sure the same mistakes don’t happen again, where possible. The best online reputation management happens from the first client consultation.”
Perfect your Law Firm’s Online Presence and Protect your Reputation
Concerned about your own approach to online reputation management? Are there negative reviews about your firm online you are worried about potential clients seeing and aren’t sure how to deal with them? Others cybersquatting on domains you deserve to have? Others trying to steal your firm’s name online? We can help. Fill out our online enquiry form here or give us a call on 0808 278 8066 and ask for Chris.