CLIENTS of a North-East law firm have been reassured their money is safe after confidence tricksters gained access to the company's bank account by obtaining confidential passwords.

A police investigation is under way for the conmen who managed to steal from Darlington-based Clark Willis.

Although the exact amount taken has not been revealed, police confirmed it was "a large sum" and the crime prompted a nationwide warning from the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

However, the company stressed last night that clients had no need to worry.

Managing partner Peter Furness said: "We were the victim of a highly sophisticated theft. The money has been put back and our professional body is aware of everything.

"No clients have been prejudiced. There is no need for [them] to be concerned."

A call claiming to be from the firm’s bank was made on Friday, March 27 – a day deliberately chosen by fraudsters as the majority of property transactions are completed on Fridays, so there is more money in law firms’ accounts.

Last night, online security expert Graham Cluley said the cash would probably end up in the hands of organised criminal gangs, either in the UK or overseas.

A spokesman for Durham Police said officers have so far been unable recover any of the stolen money.

He said: “We are investigating the loss of a large sum of money from the firm’s accounts after it was the victim of a telephone-based fraud.

“Officers from Darlington CID and the force’s economic crime unit have been making inquiries and are following up a number of possible leads, however to date none of the money has been recovered.”

As a result of the theft, The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which monitors the profession, issued a nationwide alert urging its members to be extra vigilant.

It said: “The firm lost a significant amount from its account and the crime follows two further serious telephone scams in March this year. In each case the callers have used a technique known as “social engineering” to gain the confidence of those they call and obtain information to access accounts.”

Clark Willis has offices in Darlington and Catterick Garrison and provides a range of legal services.

Mr Cluley, who writes a popular security blog, said con artists were becoming more and more adept at obtaining confidential information.

He said: “Social engineering is a trick that has been used by criminals for ever and a day.

“Although computer security evolves and technology gets better, the typical human brain hasn’t moved forward, so people are still falling for these old confidence tricks.”

Robert Loughlin, SRA executive director of operations and quality, said: “We are very concerned about this continuing activity.

“The fraudsters are highly sophisticated and their script makes them sound as though they are genuinely who they say they are.

“Solicitors throughout England and Wales are raising this serious issue as one of their major concerns.

“We are aware of firms of all sizes receiving calls.

“All firms should ensure that their own internal systems for guarding against scams are up-to-date and that staff know how to implement them.”