MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We turn now from campaigns to cons. More specifically, a type of con that's increasingly targeting local Latinos. It's known as Notario Fraud. In a nutshell, here's how it works, you have these people passing themselves off as lawyers. Right? And they give all this advice on immigration and citizenship cases. And then they charge for it. Latinos in the District are particularly at risk of falling victim to this sort of fraud according to a recent report by Georgetown University and the nonprofit organization Ayuda. Caitlin Dickerson has the story.
MS. CAITLIN DICKERSON
Maria Castro just moved in to a new apartment in Reston, Va.
MS. CAITLIN DICKERSON
Castro doesn't have any furniture yet, and her voice echoes off the bare walls. Before moving here, she was homeless. Castro immigrated to the US from Guatemala in 1991. She's been defrauded twice since then and lost more than $13,000. The first time, a notario she found in the newspaper said he could help her get a green card.
MS. MARIA CASTRO
I didn't know the area. I asked someone what I can do. There's many lawyers over there. And I hire one.
A green card came in the mail, but it was fake. When Castro showed up at the notario's office, the business was gone. Humiliated and worried about losing her legal status, Castro turned to a co-worker for advice.
She referred me to this lady because the lady's supposed to be best lawyer. She speaking Spanish I think was good because it's my language.
After a consultation and payment, Castro waited months for news about her immigration case. She checked in periodically with the lawyer, who assured her these things take time. But, eventually, the notario disappeared.
I was waiting and waiting for her. I went to the office, the office was closed. She moved and I didn't know where she go.
And that was the same thing that happened with the last lawyer?
Exactly, but this last one was so hard because it was someone in my own language, someone Spanish doing this to Spanish people. It's hard because you believe in your own people. And now I don't believe anybody.
Law clerk Anne Scheufele has seen a lot of cases like Castro's. She works for Ayuda, an advocacy organization for immigrants. And right now she's flipping through a thick binder of Spanish language advertisements from local newspapers.
MS. ANNE SCHEUFELE
So this is an ad for loan modifications, but then it also says if you'd like to travel to these countries in Central America with permission, we can complete your documents. And that service is an illegal service.
Fraudulently passing yourself off as an attorney is illegal in the District, but victims are often hesitant to go to the police, for fear of putting their legal status into question. Scheufele says perpetrators of this kind of scam often target victims by setting up shop alongside other businesses commonly used by immigrants.
Typically, the business may be also a travel agency or a remittance-sending service or even we've seen a local community grocery store.
These fraudulent legal service providers take advantage of the language barrier many immigrants face.
A notario in Mexico is someone who has already served as an attorney for five years and has passed a rigorous exam and is of good moral character. So putting the name notario on a sign somewhere in the D.C. metro area, someone seeing that might think that that person is even better than seeking services from an attorney.
Maria Castro thought she was being helped by qualified attorneys, but by the second time she was scammed her temporary work authorization had run out, she was out of a job and had lost thousands of dollars. Unable to pay her rent, Castro ended up in a shelter that connected her with Ayuda. The organization helped her regain temporary legal status, get a new job, and move into her own place. Castro acknowledges she's come a long way.
I think when they saw you (unintelligible) and specifically you are a woman and you are Spanish, they think you are stupid. Sorry for my language. It's a big mistake because I am a smart lady. I know how to work and I'm an honest person.
Law clerk Annie Scheufele and other immigrant advocates say these scams will become more common if Congress approves a bill overhauling the nation's immigration system. They say such a reform would likely open the floodgates to people seeking legal help and turning to notarios offering to solve their problems for a price. I’m Caitlin Dickerson.
You can learn more about notario fraud and check out a report on the topic by Georgetown Law's Community Justice Project on our website, metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and International law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.