For several years, we have had the honor of informing Tribuna’s readers about their consumer rights, and warning about scams. Many of the scams that we write about can affect your credit, your online safety, your personal safety or your home. But none of the scams we have warned about have the potential of devastating families like notario fraud.
For many immigrants in the United States, the process of renewing your green card, or becoming a citizen, is becoming increasingly more difficult. With changing rules and forms, and more disheartening, changes in our national administration’s attitude, these are challenging times for immigrants. Right now, while the rules around DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are unknown, it is more important than ever to pay attention to the news from Washington D.C. and understand what your rights are, and what the current laws say.
For many years, there have been dishonest scammers who take advantage of people by advertising that they can process your citizenship papers, often promising that they can do it faster and better. They advertise in papers and on the radio, websites, posters in store windows, or more effectively, by just opening an office in a neighborhood and becoming a notary public, letting the natural word-of-mouth advertising occur. They call themselves immigration experts, notario publicos, or notarios, and their help can hurt you.
In the United States, a notary public does not have any legal authority. In many South and Central American countries, a “notario” has more legal authority and is able to conduct legal business. In this country, a notary public has very limited authority, such as witnessing the signing of legal documents.
These are people who prey on their own community. They take only cash, even charging you for blank government forms that are free. They often work out of temporary office spaces. They can be very convincing – because they know just enough of the law to make it appear that they know what they are doing. They will tell you that they have a “special relationship” with the government offices that provide legal citizenship advice, or that they “work with an immigration lawyer.”
But they are not lawyers. They cannot, by law, file for you to petition for citizenship.
Sometimes, the help they give you can hurt your chances of immigrating legally. In some cases, their help has created situations in which family members are deported.
Only a lawyer, preferably an immigration lawyer, or an accredited representative of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) can help you apply for citizenship. An accredited representative is not a lawyer, but they have been authorized by the government to offer immigration advice, and they may represent you. They must work for an organization that is recognized by the government. You can get a list of these individuals and organizations from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) at the Department of Justice (www.justice.gov).
Working with the proper authorities will also help protect you from those who want to take advantage of you.
A notary public, or even a friend, a teacher or a relative, can help translate, or write what you tell them to on forms. But they cannot give you advice on what to say or direct you to the proper forms.
The path to citizenship is difficult, and can take a long time, but you have a better chance if you follow the rules and remember the following tips.
Don’t go to anyone advertising as a notario publico, or immigration expert.
Never pay for blank government forms.
Get immigration forms from U.S. government websites.
Make sure the website ends in .gov – that means it is an authentic government website.
Don’t ever let anyone keep your original documents, like your birth certificate or passport. Scammers may keep them until you pay to get them back.
Never sign a form before it has been filled out, or a form that has false information on it. Never sign a document you do not fully understand.
Make and keep copies of everything, including letters from the government about your application petition.
You will get a receipt from USCIS when you submit your paperwork. Keep it! It proves that they received your paperwork. You will need it to check on the status of your application or petition.
It is hard to complain when you have been taken advantage of – but if you don’t, no one can help you. No one can track down the dishonest scammers and make them accountable for what they do. You must complain if government agencies are to have a chance at bringing scammers to justice. And it will help others.
If you or someone you know has been scammed, contact DCP (email@example.com, or call (860) 713-6300).
Also visit www.ftccomplaintassitant.gov for more information on filing a federal complaint.
Contact USCIS to ask about lawyers who may charge low fees in your area 1 (800) 375-5283.
This article was written by Catherine Blinder, chief education and outreach officer of the Department of Consumer Protection of the State of Connecticut. To learn more about how the Department of Consumer Protection can help, visit us online at www.ct.gov/dcp.