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Immigration-Services Scams Targeted by Federal, State, and Local Governments

NYS-Notary-Seal.jpgImmigration law in the United States can be complicated and confusing for anyone, especially someone who might not speak English as their first language. In today’s environment of possible immigration reform, unscrupulous individuals are holding themselves out as immigration-service providers, offering assistance with visa petitions and green card applications. People who pay them for their services, however, rarely if ever see any benefit. Government agencies, from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to city officials, are pursuing and prosecuting alleged immigration-services scammers, and seeking to educate the public about their rights.

In order to provide immigration services to the public, a person must be a licensed attorney or have accreditation from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offers an overview of common scams targeting immigrants. Some scammers pose as USCIS officials on the telephone in order to obtain personal information for identity theft, or to demand payment to fix non-existent immigration problems. Similar scams may use email or social media instead of the telephone. Local businesses and websites may purport to offer assistance with immigration petitions and applications, despite having no legal authority to do so.

A common scam that targets immigrants from Latin American countries involves the use of the title Notario Público. In the Spanish-speaking world, a notary public performs many of the same functions as an attorney, possibly including immigration assistance. A notary public in the U.S., however, is not authorized to provide legal services (unless they are also an attorney). The FTC obtained a judgment against a Baltimore company that targeted Spanish-speaking individuals from El Salvador and Honduras and charged them a fee for immigration services that were rarely fulfilled. FTC v. Loma Int’l Business Group, No. 1:11-cv-01483, mem. order (D. Md., Mar. 24, 2014).

In granting a permanent injunction barring the defendants from providing immigration-related services, the court noted that USCIS rejected more than sixty percent of the applications they submitted. The court found that the defendants had taken in between $479,000 and $753,000 in fees for immigration services, and it ordered them to pay more than $616,000 in restitution to their victims.

The New Jersey Attorney General has also taken steps to combat immigration scams. A series of administrative actions filed with the Department of Law & Public Safety’s Division of Consumer Affairs in 2011 named as defendants several businesses that allegedly targeted Spanish-speakers and claimed to be notaries public. The complaints asserted causes of action for misrepresentation, unconscionable commercial practices, and fraudulent advertising in violation of New Jersey consumer law.

At the municipal level, a Philadelphia City Council member introduced a bill in March 2014 that would regulate businesses that provide “immigration assistance services.” The councilman specifically mentioned notarios in discussing the need for the bill. It would require a license to provide such services, with the possibility of an exemption for licensed attorneys and state and federal employees, and organizations with BIA accreditation.

Immigration lawyer Samuel C. Berger practices in the New York and New Jersey areas, representing individuals who wish to immigrate to this region, family members seeking to bring a loved one here, and employers who want to hire talent from abroad. We advise families and businesses on how to help immigrants come here, and we help immigrants obtain visas and green cards. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our legal team, please contact us today online or at (212) 380-8117.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Woman Accused of Offering Fraudulent Legal Services to Immigrants, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, March 8, 2012
Low-Income New Jersey Immigrants Fight Wage Theft, Other Violations of Workplace Laws, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, February 9, 2012
Family Convicted of Defrauding New York Immigrants in Green Card Scam, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, February 3, 2012
Photo credit: By Alex756 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.