Philly ordinance protects immigrants against notario fraud
For a long time immigrants have been the perfect victims of “notario” (notary) fraud and immigration scams perpetrated by non-lawyers looking for an easy profit. There are several factors as to why immigrants fall prey, one of them being the misconceptions they have of the U.S. legal system.
"Unfortunately undocumented immigrants are very vulnerable population and fraudsters know this and exploit this vulnerability for their own profit,” said Vanessa Stine, a Equal Justice Works fellow at Friends of Farmworkers. “There are also businesses with well intentioned folks that are trying to help people with complicated immigration problems that can still have really disastrous results.”
This year, however, marks a new beginning with regard to immigration fraud, with the implementation of a new ordinance developed to regulate businesses that offer immigration-related services.
Last December Philadelphia City Council passed Bill No. 140142, an ordinance introduced by Councilman at-large Dennis O'Brien that is expected to take effect this summer.
“My hope with the ordinance is that it should clarify to both consumers and businesses what they can and cannot do legally. To speak honestly, the businesses that have really set out to defraud people are not going to be able to comply with this,” Stine said.
Stine joined Friends of Farmworkers last fall to run a fellowship project that provides direct representation, advocacy and community education for low-income consumers who have been victims of predatory and fraudulent immigration services in Pennsylvania.
She said one of the roots of notario fraud lies in the legal differences between what a notary public is in the United States, by comparison to other countries. Defined as an official of integrity appointed by state government whose duty is to screen the signers of important documents, in Pennsylvania the only requirements to become a notary public are to be 18 years or older, to not have a criminal record and take a three-hour course.
“In Latin America, a notario público is a type of specialized lawyer. For instance, in Mexico it is someone who has at least three years of legal experience. But in the U.S. it is someone with no formal training, who simply verifies that the name on your identification is the same name you use to sign the document being notarized," Stine said.
Other reasons why immigrants tend to seek the services of a notary public instead of a lawyer are the availability of notary services within these communities, sometimes illegally advertising immigration services.
“Some businesses that offer immigration services are charging a lower rate than a private attorney, which makes people feel like using them is better because it’s more affordable. I’ve also seen really terrible scams where people are being charged $5,000 or $10,000 dollars, much more than an attorney would charge, for something that they are not actually even eligible for,” Stine said.
Under the new ordinance, any person or business that provides immigration-related services must register annually with the city. According to Stine, the registration list will be made accessible to the public, with both registered and non-registered businesses, so they can more easily be held accountable.
“It also helps businesses that are trying to do the right thing but don’t really know where the line is. This ordinance really draws the line for them,” Stine said.
Other requirements under the new ordinance include:
• Post a multilingual sign, provided by the city, to warn customers that the provider is neither a licensed lawyer nor authorized to provide legal assistance.
• Provide each customer with a multilingual brochure that outlines the consumer's rights, the provider's responsibilities, and the steps for reporting fraud.
• Provide each customer with a written contract for services in a language the customer understands, copies of any documents that are prepared, and receipts for all payments.
• Obtain a bond surety.
• Make certain disclosures in advertising.
Although these new requirements provide a greater protection for immigrant rights, Stine highlighted that any immigrant who starts a contract for legal services needs to be very clear on what benefit they are applying for, why they can apply for the benefit and how much the benefit costs.
“My advice is that people should always use a lawyer. I know not all lawyers are good, I know people who have had really bad experiences with them. People really have to do their homework when looking for legal services and is always a good idea to get a second opinion,” Stine said. “I know there is not sufficient help at nonprofits but I still think they are a good first step in getting a consultation. If they can’t help you they can give you their list of reputable private attorneys.”
For more information you can reach Vanessa Stine at 215-733-0878, extension 140. You can also visit Friends of Farmworkers.