Combatting ‘Notario’ Fraud in East Harlem, Bronx

September 20, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015

Immigration fraud is a prevalent problem in East Harlem and the Bronx, elected officials say, and much of it has to do with immigrants holding reservations about coming forward after they have been scammed.

“We hear some of the saddest, most heartbreaking stories of immigrant families coming here with the best of intentions … and they wind up getting ripped off,” said State Senator Jose Serrano of the 28th Senate District in the Bronx. Immigration fraud is the most common concern Serrano hears from constituents.

The most common form of fraud is known as notario fraud. In Latin American countries, a Notario Publico is either an attorney or a judge, said Isabel Navarro, president of Casa Mexico, a nonprofit community organization.

Service providers with signs reading “notario” posted in their windows are persons who have simply obtained a Notary Public designation, which allows the person to witness the signing of documents and administer oaths.

Many of them are aware that the clients think they’re speaking to an attorney, said Navarro. Further, the fraudulent notarios are telling immigrants they can offer legal representation, according to the attorney general’s office.

“The moment they give advice they’re in violation of the law,” said Roberto Lebron from the attorney general’s Harlem office.

State and city law requires service providers to give clients a contract in English, as well as in a second language the immigrant understands. The document must list the services that will be provided in detail, along with the associated fees. It is advised that the client obtain a copy of the signed contract and retain a copy of all documents filed with the government.

High fees and promises to provide services that the person is not authorized to provide are also a problem.

“It’s illegal for them to represent that a fee can be charged for immigration forms, and we see that all the time,” Lebron said. “They cannot promise special favors or indicate that they have special influence with immigration services. They cannot threaten to report the client or in any way undermine the client’s immigration status.”

Only a licensed attorney, who can be verified at https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/attorney, or an organization recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals, may give legal advice on immigration matters and/or petition to file an application.

Reluctance to Report

As a community leader, Navarro said she’s seen and met with many immigrants who have fallen prey to fraudulent service providers.

“Do you know how much effort and sacrifice they have to make in order to collect $300? And then these people come like vampires to take all the money,” Navarro said. Immigrants often feel they’re unable to report these cases without being at the risk of deportation themselves.

Assistant Attorney General Guy Mitchell said that many immigrants may feel wary about reporting fraudulent service providers and unauthorized attorneys because of their immigration status, and it is important to realize that the attorney general’s office will not ask for, or pass on, information regarding the immigrant’s status.

“The Office of the Attorney General is the people’s lawyer, with a responsibility to protect those who probably cannot afford to protect themselves,” Mitchell said.

“In our community there’s been, for a long time, this prevailing sense of not coming forward,” Serrano said. “But what’s really important to drill home here is that when you come forward to the state attorney general’s office here, these are the people who will protect you and make sure that your information is handled in the right way.”

In one case, an Edwin Rivera discovered that there was a licensed attorney with his same name. He downloaded the registration, and scammed several immigrants before he was prosecuted, fined, and served jail time. After he was released, however, he continued to provide fraudulent services, was again prosecuted, and is now serving more jail time.

“It’s really important for the community to come forward and let us know when they believe that there’s a problem,” Lebron said.

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