SAN FRANCISCO – Attorney General Kamala D. Harris today issued a consumer alert to Californians about possible scams targeting immigrants and their families. Major changes to United States immigration policy, like those contained in President Barack Obama’s Immigration Accountability Executive Actions announced on November 20, 2014, often lead to con artists emerging to prey on vulnerable consumers seeking help with immigration services.
Using unauthorized immigration consultants can delay your application, cost you unnecessary fees and possibly lead to removal proceedings. This consumer alert will give you tips on how to avoid and report immigration services scams.
WHERE TO GO FOR ADVICE:
For individual advice you should contact a lawyer who specializes in immigration law. If you need help finding a lawyer you can contact the State Bar of California at (415) 538-2250 or online at: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Public/LawyerReferralServicesLRS.aspx. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney you can find information on legal aid organizations near you by going to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) website: http://www.justice.gov/eoir/probono/freelglchtCA.pdf or http://lawhelpca.org/issues/immigration.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR:
If you see an ad or someone approaches you offering to help you with your immigration status, be very careful. Many of these people are immigration consultants, not lawyers, and what they are legally allowed to do is very limited and may not be worth what they want to charge you. If you decide to hire a non-attorney immigration consultant, here is some information that may help you avoid losing thousands of dollars or damaging your immigration status because of scammers who never deliver on promised services.
The new immigration rules have not yet been implemented. Federal immigration authorities are not accepting any requests or applications at this time. Beware of anyone who offers to help you submit an application or a request for any of these actions before they are available. For updated information on eligibility criteria and availability of these programs, please visit http://www.uscis.gov/immigrationaction or http://www.uscis.gov/es/accionmigratoria. Be on alert if someone tells you about an immigration law that does not exist, or claims to have connections or special influence with any government office or agency, or makes reference to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) with respect to fees and forms. These statements are false.
Walk away from an immigration attorney that is unlicensed or a representative that is not accredited. If you need legal advice on immigration matters, make sure the person you rely on is authorized to give you legal advice. Do not be fooled; many dishonest consultants will claim to be lawyers or accredited representatives. To verify whether an attorney is licensed to practice law, check with the state bar association to verify the individual is a member in good standing of the bar of the highest court of any U.S. state. Lawyers from another country who are not licensed to practice in the U.S. are not authorized to provide immigration services within the U.S. To see if a person is an attorney licensed to practice law in California, enter their name here: http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/MemberSearch/QuickSearch. You can also check to see if an immigration attorney was suspended or expelled from practice before the immigration court, the BIA, or the immigration service (USCIS), here: http://www.justice.gov/eoir/discipline.htm. If you are working with a non-attorney, verify whether the individual is an accredited representative of an organization recognized by the BIA by going to this site:http://www.justice.gov/eoir/ra/raroster_orgs_reps_state_city.htm#CALIFORNIA
It is against the law for immigration consultants, notaries public, and “notarios” to give you legal advice. Only attorneys can give you legal advice. Immigration consultants can only provide you with non-legal assistance and advice. For example, immigration consultants can translate your answers to the questions on immigration forms or get copies of supporting documents. They cannot suggest your answers on the forms or tell you which forms you need to file with federal immigration authorities. Be very careful before paying money to anyone who is neither an attorney nor a BIA-accredited representative of a recognized organization.
It is against the law for immigration consultants to use terms in another language that suggest that he or she is an attorney. For example, immigration consultants cannot use the term "notario" to describe themselves in advertisements or other written materials. In some Latin American countries, a “notario” is an attorney. Immigrants from those countries might think that the consultant is an attorney when he or she is not. If an immigration consultant suggests that he or she is an attorney when they are not a licensed attorney, you can submit a complaint to stop their dishonest and unlawful practices here: http://oag.ca.gov/contact/consumer-complaint-against-business-or-company.
It is against the law for immigration consultants to make false or misleading statements, to give a written guarantee unless they have some basis in fact for making the guarantee, or to make statements that he or she has special influence with the federal government.
It is against the law for immigration consultants to provide you with services if they don't have an immigration consultants bond. An immigration consultant must give you a copy of the bond and bond number prior to giving you any services. You may recover the money you paid to an immigration consultant from the bond if you are defrauded by them or if you do not receive the promised services. To see if an immigration consultant has a bond, contact the California Secretary of State at (916) 653-4984 or go to http://www.sos.ca.gov/cgi-bin/bond_search.cgi.
It is against the law for an immigration consultant to charge you a fee for referring you to an immigration attorney. Only State Bar certified lawyer referral services can refer you to an attorney for a fee. Call the California State Bar at (415) 538-2250 for the telephone number of the State Bar certified lawyer referral service nearest you.
Do not pay for services that are likely free; USCIS’ website includes downloadable forms, a list of current filing fees, and processing time information for free. Some immigration consultants sometimes charge you a higher fee to file USCIS forms than USCIS charges, claiming they can file your documents faster. These claims are false; there are few exceptions to the normal USCIS processing times and you can download USCIS forms for free online at: http://www.uscis.gov/forms or order them by calling 1-800-870-3676. Do not pay anyone for copies of USCIS forms; you can download them for free. USCIS publishes its current filing fees online or you can call USCIS’ National Customer Service Center at 1-800-375-5283 for fee information. Make sure to compare USCIS’ filing fees with any filing fees an immigration consultant or attorney tries to charge you before you pay for their services.
You have the right to cancel a contract for immigration consulting services within 72 hours of signing it. Always keep a copy of the contract for your records.
Never give an immigration consultant your original documents. Only give copies of your important documents like birth certificates or passports. Keep the originals in a safe place. It is against the law for immigration consultants to keep your original documents.
Beware of telephone scams. Do not fall victim to telephone scammers posing as federal immigration officials. These scammers typically ask for personal information, payment and will claim there is a problem with your immigration record. If a scammer calls you, say “No, thank you” and hang up. Federal immigration officials will not call you to ask for any form of payment over the phone. Do not give payment over the phone to anyone who claims to be a USCIS official.
Beware of dot-com websites. Some websites offering step-by-step guidance on completing an immigration status application or petition will claim to be affiliated with federal immigration authorities. For updated information on eligibility criteria and availability of these programs, please visit: http://www.uscis.gov/immigrationaction or http://www.uscis.gov/es/accionmigratoria.
Whether you hire an attorney or an immigration consultant, here are some tips to protect yourself:
Always get a written contract that is translated into your language. Do this before giving the immigration consultant or attorney any money. Always ask for a written contract that is in English and is translated into your language. Your contract should describe the services the immigration consultant or attorney will provide, the total cost of the services, and the full name, address, and telephone number of the immigration consultant or attorney.
Read all documents carefully. You may want to take them home to discuss them with a friend or a family member before signing any document. Make sure you fully understand a document before signing it.
Do not hesitate to get a second opinion. If you are unsure whether your immigration consultant or attorney is giving trustworthy advice, do not hesitate to seek a second opinion. Call the California State Bar at (415) 538-2250 for the telephone number of the State Bar certified lawyer referral service nearest you.
Get a receipt each time you pay an immigration consultant or attorney. The receipt should describe what the payment is for and any remaining balance. Make sure the immigration consultant or attorney signs and dates the receipt.
Never sign any immigration forms that you do not understand. Make sure you understand what the form says and that the information contained in it is true before signing it. Have someone you trust review the form and any accompanying translation with you for accuracy. An immigration consultant or attorney should not file any form with the federal government on your behalf until they have clearly clarified the purpose of the form and filing in a way that you understand and comprehend.
Never sign forms that contain false information or are blank. Most signed forms submitted to the federal government are signed under penalty of perjury. This means that you know what is in the form and that it is true to the best of your knowledge. You could be committing a crime if you sign a form knowing that the information in it is not true. Always keep copies of all forms that you file for your records.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE THE VICTIM OF A SCAM:
The California Department of Justice, in its role as the state’s enforcer of consumer protection, collects complaints on immigration-related services fraud (“notarios”) in order to detect patterns of wrongdoing. By submitting a complaint against an immigration consultant you are contributing to California’s ability to investigate and prosecute known offenders and stop notario fraud from harming others. To file a Complaint with our office, use one of the following complaint forms: