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Immigration lawyers warn of 'notario' fraud

Licensed immigration attorneys worry that with the border crisis, notario fraud will increase.

SAN DIEGO — Migrants on both sides of the border are being targeted by fake attorneys.

It’s called notario fraud - scammers posing as lawyers and extorting vulnerable immigrants.

Just on the other side of the San Ysidro border at El Chaparral encampment in Tijuana are 2,000 immigrants who are waiting to enter the U.S.

“These folks are very vulnerable, very desperate,” said Dulce Garcia, Esq., an immigration attorney.

Under the guise of an immigration attorney, predators are snaking their way through El Chaparral and obtaining immigrants' personal information and extorting them.

“They have been receiving calls saying, ‘we have all your information now, you better pay us money before you are able to cross over to the U.S and if you don't we know where you are going to be, who you are and who your family is in the US,’” said Garcia.

She is a licensed immigration attorney and the executive director of the nonprofit, Border Angels, and has spent the last two weeks at El Chaparral with the immigrants and has heard their stories of being targeted by scammers.

“Saying, ‘you have to pay us bond money, you have to pay us money upfront before we can even submit your forms,'" said Garcia. 

That is illegal and extortion.

As pandemic restrictions lift and there are more immigration hearings, attorneys are concerned about a rise in notario fraud cases.

“The state bar can help you protect against fraud,” said Jennifer Pinney, Senior Trial Counsel, California State Bar.

Scammers will pose as notario público which in many Latin countries is a reputable person with a lot of legal training. In California they’re not, most often they’re immigration consultants with no legal authority.  

“They [consultants] cannot say they are an attorney or a notario public, they cannot say their business is a law firm,” said Pinney.

They cannot elect what forms you need, tell you how to fill out forms, give legal advice or represent anyone in immigration court. 

Immigration consultants can help fill out paperwork, translate documents and submit forms to government agencies.

Complaints like this are also being made in San Diego.

The bar posts on its website cease and desist letters sent to unauthorized attorneys. Not all listed pertain to immigration. If convicted, it is punishable up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“In cases where they do offer legal advice it's often inadequate and illegal advice,” said Pinney.

Immigration advocates say it’s frustrating because all they want to do is help migrants.

“It takes a long time for us to build trust and it could be easily broken by these rumors,” said Garcia.

Here are three things you can do to prevent notario fraud:

The California State Bar allows you to search for a licensed attorney. If you don’t see their name, that’s a red flag. It also provides legal immigration services.  

To search for an immigration consultant, go to the California Secretary of State website. A person has to obtain a $100,000 bond from a corporate surety and file it with the Secretary of State.

Always check their references.

To file a complaint go to California State Bar website.

WATCH: Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer proposes immigrant legal defense program

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