Attorney Articles | Dont-Get-Scammed

Articles by Legal Department Staff

The Legal Department articles are not intended to serve as legal advice and are offered for educational purposes only. The information provided should not be used as a substitute for independent legal advice and it is not intended to address every situation that could potentially arise. Please be aware that laws, regulations and technical standards change over time. As a result, it is important to verify and update any reference or information that is provided in the article.


This article will discuss an ongoing email scam that is targeting therapists. Recourses and tips are discussed for those who have been affected. The ethics of fees are also discussed.

Anastasia Johnson, JD
former Staff Attorney
The Therapist
July/August 2017

Therapists should be aware of an email scam that has been targeting psychotherapists across the country for years. The common scenario begins with an email from a potential client seeking services. The sender of the email, who is from out of town, expresses interest in attending couples therapy with his wife. The individual goes into detail about the specifics of his situation and the struggles he and his wife are facing. (In a different version, the email might be from a concerned parent requesting to have his or her child visit your private practice while the child is visiting the United States. Or, the email might be from an individual who tells you about his/her personal trauma, usually involving financial ruin, or a possibly life threatening situation.) The sender of the email explains the situation in great detail. At first look, the email may not raise any red flags and you reply with some questions and available appointment times. The back and forth emails may continue for several weeks. Eventually the individual will settle on an appointment date and time. The emails will be friendly and unassuming, even pleasant. However, no matter the specifics and the pleasantries, the scam that follows is always the same.

Before the first appointment the individual will send a pre-payment, which may have been discussed and arranged for in the emails. The individual may have explained that he/ she is from out of town and will have to pay in advance for some reason (in some situations, the individual is seeking services for their family member, and wishes to pre-pay for their family member so as not to burden the family member with the hassle of paying). Whatever the explanation, an upfront payment will be sent to you. The payment is in the form of a cashier’s or other official check, and is for an amount well over the actual charges, which may have been explained as payment for future services, or is said to have been made by mistake.

This is where the scam heats up. The scammer preys on your desire to help and rescue clients in need. If you have deposited the check, the scammer will end up asking that you send back the “overpayment amount” or a “refund” because they have to cancel the appointment. Keep in mind that depending on how the scam was initiated; either as a couple seeking counseling, an individual seeking therapy, or a parent requesting therapy for his/her child, the request for the return of the over-payment or refund may be compelling. In some cases, the individual will apologize for the mistake and ask that you simply send back the difference, and in other cases, the individual will ask for the money back because he/she is in urgent need of the funds for a life threatening condition, or because he/she is not able to access his/her bank account and this is the only money he/she can access.

Throughout the entire scam, a simple and plausible explanation will be given for the mix-up. But this is exactly how the scam works. You send the scammer your money. Since you have deposited the check, under federal law, banks generally must make funds available to you from official bank checks (cashier’s checks, certified checks, and teller’s checks), within one business day after you have deposited the check. For other checks, banks must make the first $200 available the day after you deposit the check, and the remaining funds must be made available on the second business day after the deposit.1

However, just because funds are available on a check you have deposited does not mean the check is good or the funds have actually cleared. It is best not to rely on money from any type of check (cashier, business or personal check, or money order) unless you know and trust the person you are dealing with or, better yet—until the bank confirms that the check has cleared. Forgeries can take weeks to be discovered and untangled. The bottom line is that until the bank confirms that the funds from the check have been deposited into your account, you are responsible for any funds you withdraw against that check.2 This could result in you sending hundreds or thousands of dollars of your hard earned money to scammers. CAMFT members have reported that checks made out for $2,000 or even $3,000 dollars have been received by therapists as part of this scam.

Once the individual has your money he/she will never be heard from again. These scams can be hard to detect, and unlike older email scams the emails may be well-written and coherent. The email address may be legitimate and not raise any red flags. The stories will be convincing and pull on your heart strings and desire to help the client(s). The scammer may communicate with you over weeks to try to coordinate schedules and give you details of their life. They might also be familiar with the therapeutic process and ask questions that lead you to believe they are genuinely seeking professional services. Finally, pressure will be applied only when the check has been deposited, because that is their goal; to have you send them your money because the pre-payment check is counterfeit.

This scam has been reported to the Federal Trade Commission but is still appearing and victimizing therapists and generally anyone in the helping professions. The helping professions are vulnerable to this type of scam because therapists are trained to be empathetic, compassionate and helpful. In addition, therapists are also accustomed to dealing with atypical life stories and situations.

To avoid being scammed, the Federal Trade Commission recommends:

  • If you accept payment by check, ask for a check drawn on a local bank, or a bank with a local branch. That way, you can make a personal visit to make sure the check is valid. If that is not possible, call the bank where the check was purchased, and ask if it is valid.
  • Obtain the bank’s phone number from directory assistance or an Internet site that you know and trust, not from the check or from the person who gave you the check.
  • Do not wire money to strangers or potential clients.
  • Resist any pressure to “act now.” If the emailer insists that you wire back funds, end the transaction immediately.
  • Do not accept a check for more than the actual fee for services, no matter how convincing the story. Ask the emailer to write or send the check for the correct amount. If the emailer refuses to send the correct amount, return the check.3

Be cautious when screening potential clients and request information such as an address, phone number, an emergency contact number, the name of the client’s primary care doctor or other treating professional and other details before scheduling appointments. Call potential clients on the phone as part of the screening process. If you choose to engage with emails that are similar to the ones described above, and receive a check, make it part of your due diligence to follow the Federal Trade Commission guidelines, including calling the bank on which the check is drawn and waiting for the funds to clear, which could take more than a week. Further, talk to your bank about any concerns you have about the check.

These scams also present the issue of therapists accepting payment for a bundle of therapy sessions or future sessions—which presents several ethical issues. The common practice is to ask for and receive payment at the time services are rendered. A fixed number of sessions is typically difficult to set before meeting the client. Although not unethical, per se, before accepting payment in advance of rendering services the therapist may consider what it would mean for the client and their circumstances. If the therapist or client decides to terminate services, but future sessions have been already paid for, is there a refund mechanism in place that is acceptable to both parties? In addition, the therapist may want to consider how his or her clinical judgment may be affected if he or she is trying to earn the entire pre-payment, when that amount of treatment might be contra-indicated which could lead to a distorted therapeutic relationship. Another issue to consider is how the client’s expectation of the therapist or the services may be affected by the pre-payment.

Therapists should review the CAMFT Code of Ethics when considering accepting prepayment of services in advance.
The CAMFT Code of Ethics states that:

  • Financial Gain - Marriage and family therapists do not maintain therapeutic relationships solely for financial gain.4
  • Financial Exploitation - Marriage and family therapists do not financially exploit their patients.5
  • Disclosure of Fees - Marriage and family therapists disclose, in advance, their fees and the basis upon which they are computed, including but not limited to, charges for canceled or missed appointments and an interest to be charged on unpaid balances, at the beginning of treatment and give reasonable notice of any changes or other charges.6

In summary, therapists provide an important service to the public, however protecting yourself and your business should not fall by the wayside.

If you have been a victim of an Internet scam or have received an e-mail that you believe was an attempted scam, please contact:


1 The Federal Trade Commission ( articles/0159-fake-checks)
2 The Federal Trade Commission ( articles/0159-fake-checks)
3 The Federal Trade Commission
4 CAMFT Code of Ethics 1.3.3
5 Id.9.2
6 Id. 9.3

This article is not intended to serve as legal advice and is offered for educational purposes only. The information provided should not be used as a substitute for independent legal advice and it is not intended to address every situation that could potentially arise. Please be aware that laws, regulations and technical standards change over time. As a result, it is important to verify and update any reference or information that is provided in this article.