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Immigration scams are rampant. Here’s how to avoid getting taken

Many hands reaching for money in a wallet.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)
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For several years, Oswaldo Rafael Cabrera touted his services as an immigration attorney in advertisements, social media posts and interviews with Spanish-language news outlets.

Unfortunately for his many clients, Cabrera was not a lawyer. He wasn’t legally qualified to offer any kind of help on immigration matters despite the large fees he charged. Accused of grand theft and other violations, he pleaded guilty in 2017 and was sentenced to 62 months in state prison.

Cabrera is just one example of the many people who prey on immigrants as they try to navigate the labyrinth of U.S. immigration law. Some pretend to be attorneys. Others offer supposedly expert guidance for a fee, even though they are not permitted to do so.

Drawing on an unprecedented poll, this series tells the stories of immigrant life in America today, putting their voices in the foreground.

Widespread lack of knowledge about U.S. immigration law and its many requirements makes immigrants vulnerable to being taken. Nearly half of immigrants in California, and 45% nationwide, feel they don’t have enough information about U.S. immigration policy to understand how it affects them and their families, according to a nationwide survey of immigrants conducted by The Times in partnership with Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Impostors feed on the hopes of people who may have little realistic chance of obtaining the relief they want. Worse, by applying for a work permit or status that their clients are not qualified for, they may be exposing those clients to deportation.

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What are the common types of scams?

“One of the stories that we just heard over and over again [was], ‘I gave some guy $10,000 who told me he could get me a work permit, and I never heard from him again,’” said Jackie Vimo, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit National Immigration Law Center, which has done focus groups with immigrants. The dollar amounts vary, she said, “but the reality is, that’s widespread.”

Unfortunately for many immigrants, the work permit, visa or other relief they want often isn’t legally possible — or is available only to a small percentage of those seeking it.

“The fact that our immigration system is broken and, for most people, there aren’t clear paths to adjust their status is one of the reasons that immigrants are so vulnerable” to fraudsters, Vimo said.

Work permits, for example, are available only for a few types of applicants, such as those with temporary protected status or long-standing applications for asylum, said Daniel Sharp, chief of the Los Angeles County Office of Immigrant Affairs.

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Another scam involves charging fees for copies of immigration application forms, such as those for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the government provides for free.

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A third, increasingly common scam involves text messages, calls or emails supposedly from Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Citizenship and Immigration Services with an urgent demand for payment to avoid deportation, said Allison Davenport, senior managing attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. The scammers are pretty sophisticated, she said; they’ll use spoofed phone numbers so their calls appear to be from the government. They’ll occasionally target people who face or have family members facing deportation.

The combination of high stakes and a deadline lead a lot of people to pay, rather than seek the help of a legal professional, Davenport said. The demand for money should be a big red flag, she said.

“You cannot wire money to the immigration service,” she added.

Another type of scam aims to dupe an immigrant into becoming a “money mule,” said Seth Ruden of BioCatch, a company that develops anti-fraud technology.

The scammer persuades the victim to give them access to a bank account in the victim’s name. The scammer’s goal, Ruden said, is to launder the proceeds of illegitimate activities.

Many immigrants worry that taking public benefits could hurt their chances at a green card, Ruden said, so scammers will pitch these arrangements as a kind of benefit that won’t be counted against them.

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“Just being able to circulate funds is not a job,” he said. “Just being requested to open an account on behalf of another individual is not work.”

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How do immigrants become targets?

Victims of scams often wind up in the hands of a fraudster because they need help — desperately, in many cases — and don’t know where to look for it.

The need could be triggered by a deportation proceeding, the demand for a work permit, an asylum application, an arrest that could threaten a person’s DACA status or any other interaction with the immigration system. Immigrants living in the U.S. without permission may also seek help just to relieve the fear of being deported.

Those needs and desires bring immigrants to fraudulent providers, who blatantly promote immigration services they’re not qualified to offer in community newspapers, online, on foreign-language radio stations and via other advertising outlets. Similarly, there’s no shortage of “notarios” — notary publics — claiming the ability to advise immigrants on legal matters, as notaries are trained to do in Latin America, Vimo said. In the United States, notaries are qualified only to authenticate signatures.

“Notario fraud is significant and persistent,” Vimo said.

Scammers will often try to look the part of an immigration expert, Sharp said, dressing well and charging high fees, “when all they’re doing is filling out forms for people and probably dispensing legal advice that they’re probably not allowed to give.”

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Then there are neighborhood professionals trained to offer one service, such as preparing tax returns, who offer immigration help on the side, despite not being legally qualified. In rural areas, they may attract customers simply because they’re closer and easier to get to, Davenport said.

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Many of them have been in the community for years, Sharp said, which gives them the patina of legitimacy. Word of mouth will often send immigrants to their door, Vimo said, because they’d supposedly helped someone else in the past with their immigration forms.

Chances are, however, that these people can’t deliver any real help.

Because of the uniqueness of each person’s case and the complexity of the process, immigrants need someone to guide them, said Angélica Salas, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA. That makes the situation rife for exploitation.

Some fraudsters “are going to take your money and run,” she said. Others will extract thousands of dollars in payments while doing little or nothing to advance your case.

Scammers thrive because of the yawning gap between the need for affordable legal help and the supply, experts say. And because immigration proceedings are civil matters, not criminal ones, there’s no government guarantee of an attorney.

The federal government, the state of California, Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles have all put up more money in recent years to provide legal help to lower-income immigrants, most often through nonprofit organizations. But “the capacity still doesn’t meet the need,” Sharp said.

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Complicating the picture, more than 1,000 “immigration consultants” are registered in California. Consultants emerged as a profession decades ago, when immigration law was more straightforward, Davenport said.

Legally, consultants can provide and translate immigration forms for applicants, submit forms to Citizenship and Immigration Services, and refer their clients to immigration attorneys.

What they aren’t allowed to do, according to the California secretary of state’s office, is suggest what type of relief to seek, which forms to fill out or how to answer questions, or provide any other type of legal advice.

The problem, Sharp said, is that immigration consultants are dispensing legal advice in virtually all cases — sometimes with good intentions, sometimes not.

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The cost of bad immigration advice

Seeking immigration help from someone who’s not an expert could cost far more than just money. If you’re in the country without permission and apply for relief you’re not qualified for, you could be deported.

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For example, illicit operators sometimes file asylum applications for people with no grounds to claim it, Sharp said. When asylum is denied, immigration court proceedings can be triggered against the applicants.

Another trap immigrants can fall into occurs when they’re told they’d have a better chance at a family unification visa if they left their family in the U.S. and applied at an American consulate outside the country. Requirements for a visa are complicated, and it’s possible that an applicant wouldn’t be allowed to return legally to the U.S. for years, if at all, Sharp said.

“They put you in danger,” Salas said of unethical or incompetent immigration advisors. “You thought you were getting a lifeline, instead they help you drown.”

Even filling out the paperwork can be fraught, Vimo said. “These are complicated forms,” she said, “and there are some mistakes that can’t be corrected.” Saying something false on a form, even accidentally, can prevent you from adjusting your status, she said.

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How do you protect yourself?

The first place to go with your immigration issues or questions is a nonprofit such as CHIRLA or the Central American Resource Center. To find one in L.A. County, consult the searchable map at the county Office of Immigrant Affairs’ website. You can also check ImmigrationLawHelp.org or ImmigrationAdvocates.org for sources of free or low-cost legal assistance.

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CHIRLA offers free consultations with an immigration lawyer on the first Saturday of every month.

In many cases, Salas said, “we tell them, ‘You know what? You just don’t qualify.’” That’s the sort of answer scammers and unethical professionals won’t provide, she said, because it generates no fees for them.

Another option is to work with an accredited representative — not a lawyer, but someone with special training who works with immigration lawyers at a nonprofit organization such as CHIRLA. To find one near you, consult the list of organizations and representatives on the Justice Department’s website.

If you’re looking for an immigration lawyer, multiple online directories offer the names of attorneys near you, as well as a way to check whether an attorney is licensed:

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What else should immigrants do to avoid being scammed?

Never pay for immigration forms, never sign a blank form, and keep all of your original documents, Vimo said.

Make sure you understand any form being filed on your behalf and any process you’re going through. If details are withheld from you, or if you can’t get copies of everything filed on your behalf, that’s a red flag, Vimo said.

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If you ask for details about your case and you’re told, “Trust me,” Vimo said, “that should be a red flag right there.”

Steer clear of service providers who won’t let you see everything in your immigration file, including the forms filed on your behalf and the responses from the government, said Abraham Bedoy, a policy and community specialist with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

If your service provider encourages you to lie or be less than fully truthful, Davenport said, that’s an indication of trouble. Be suspicious, too, of anyone who claims to have contacts inside Citizenship and Immigration Services or who promises “express” service, she said.

Avoid anyone who asks for money upfront, especially if they say there’s urgency to the payment, Ruden said.

Finally, before you take any action, consult the L.A. County Office of Immigrant Affairs’ comprehensive guide to detecting scams and avoiding fraud.

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