Many real immigration attorneys tell stories of clients who came to them after having wasted thousands of dollars paying a "notario" for a green card that never materialized, or for a student visa that falsely promised a legal way to stay in the U.S.
In Mexico, "notarios" are attorneys who give up private practice, but still help clients navigate the legal system. However, more and more "notarios" in the U.S., who have no legal authority here, have become successful immigration scammers.
For the past year, the federal government has made a big push to crack down on these types of businesses by prosecuting scammers and forcing them to pay damages of up to $7,000 a victim. Rigoberto Reyes, a chief investigator with the L.A. County Department of Consumer Affairs, says "notarios" here typically advertise in ethnic media outlets.
“These guys are spending a lot more money than even your immigration attorneys," says Reyes. "They don’t have to cover the expenses that a regular attorney has to in order to stay in business. But you see this in the Armenian community, the Korean community, the Filipino community, the Cambodian community.”
One of Reyes’ most successful cases involved interviewing more than 150 victims of fraud by an Armenian scammer who targeted clients from Israel, Lithuania and Singapore. She is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.
But getting immigrants to report these scammers is difficult in the first place. As a result, some real immigration attorneys are making a greater effort to serve as middlemen between victims and prosecutors.
Some nonprofits have joined the fight, creating task forces and handing out materials warning about scams — including the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
“That stuff needs to be distributed throughout the community in places like nonprofits," says Nora Privitera, director of the Center's Provider Fraud Project. "But also in places like grocery stores and health clinics, and wherever immigrants are likely to be."
Not surprisingly, the immigration scam business is constantly changing and adapting to the needs of desperate immigrants. Experts say many of these shops now simply exist online, charging exorbitant fees and recruiting clients in their home countries.
"[Immigrants] are vulnerable victims," Privitera says. "They tend to be likely to trust somebody who speaks their language fluently and is one of their countrymen, so it’s just too easy for them to get victimized.”