Notario Fraud: What it is, why it matters, and how to avoid becoming a victim.

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Monday, April 7, 2014 - 12:30pm
Meg Hobbins, Senior Attorney

What is Notario Fraud?

Foreign nationals in the United States often face difficult social, economic, and linguistic barriers to accessing qualified legal assistance. These factors leave immigrant communities particularly vulnerable to “notario” or “immigration consultant” fraud. Notario fraud is a scam in which individuals who are not licensed to practice law in the United States hold themselves out as qualified to assist with immigration and other legal matters. Some claim to be able to help, but then take the victim’s money and never file the necessary documents. Some promise to secure benefits that simply do not exist under U.S. law. Others file false information without the immigrant’s consent. Many notarios are able to avoid punishment and continue their fraudulent actions because their victims fear the consequences of asserting their rights or, in other cases, the victims have already been removed from the United States.

Notarios are frequently located within immigrant neighborhoods and give victims a false sense of security because they are easily accessible, speak a common language, and often advertise in local community newspapers. The term “notario” can also be misleading because in many Latin American countries, a “notario” or “notario publico” is a professional appointed by the state to practice law who often has higher qualifications than an attorney. In many other countries with civil law traditions, a notary public is synonymous with an attorney. In contrast, notaries in the United States have limited duties, such as witnessing signatures on various legal documents and authenticating certified copies. Often the misunderstanding is far from accidental as the notario intentionally lies to the victim about his or her qualifications.

The only individuals who are legally authorized and qualified to practice immigration law are licensed attorneys and Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) accredited representatives. Non-lawyers who advertise as legal “consultants” or “notarios publicos” are neither authorized nor qualified to help with immigration law-related matters. Notarios engage in the unauthorized practice of law, exploiting immigrant communities and causing serious harm to their victims.

Why does notario fraud matter?

Late, absent, or fraudulent immigration filings can seriously jeopardize or eliminate an otherwise qualified individual’s chances of gaining or renewing legal status in the United States. This often remains true even when the fault lies with a notario. In other words, a notario victim may face permanent separation from family members due solely to the fact that he or she trusted an unscrupulous service provider. Even beyond the immediate immigration consequences, notario fraud can also have a damaging effect on the financial, professional, and psychological wellbeing of the victim and his or her family.

What are some common immigration scams?

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the following are common immigration law scams harming foreign nationals:

  • Telephone spoofing and phishing scams from individuals claiming to be from USCIS, requesting personal information, identifying false problems with an applicant’s immigration records, and asking for payment to correct the records.
  • Charging fees for USCIS forms that can be downloaded from www.uscis.gov/forms for free.
  • Local businesses or individuals that guarantee immigration benefits, faster services, and/or access to USCIS officials for a fee.

What steps can be taken to avoid notario fraud?

  • Although some immigration filings may seem simple and straight forward, in reality, immigration law is a complex discipline with very serious consequences for the applicant. Foreign nationals should be wary of any individual who claims that an attorney is not necessary to help them with their case.
  • Foreign nationals should always confirm that the person offering assistance is a licensed attorney or a BIA accredited representative. A notary’s license is NOT the same as an attorney’s bar license.
  • Foreign nationals should always make sure that the legal service provider officially acknowledges their role as attorney or accredited representative to the government by submitting a Form G-28 (for immigration petitions and applications) or EOIR-28 (for immigration court proceedings). If the service provider refuses or enters vague, non-identifying information, the foreign national should be extremely cautious and ask about the provider’s qualifications.

If a foreign national has already been the victim of notario fraud, there may still be options available for legal immigration status. There may also be recourse in civil and criminal law depending on the jurisdiction. While language barriers, financial concerns, and general distrust of the law enforcement are all powerful factors that discourage foreign nationals from seeking legal assistance, it is critical for notario victims to understand their rights and evaluate their options with a qualified attorney. Furthermore, reporting notario fraud will help bring perpetrators to justice and prevent them from causing further harm. For state-by-state guidance on reporting notario fraud, please visit the American Immigration Lawyers Association sponsored website, www.StopNotarioFraud.org.