New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Continues its Enforcement Action Against Allegedly Fraudulent Immigration Services Providers; Files Charges
Against Four Companies
NEWARK – Attorney General Paula T. Dow and the State Division of Consumer Affairs have filed complaints against four allegedly fraudulent immigration services providers. The businesses are accused of falsely advertising they were authorized to prepare immigration documents on behalf of clients.
Only attorneys, or certain other accredited representatives authorized by the federal government, may file legal documents such as immigration forms on a client's behalf. The four businesses, in Passaic and Hudson counties, allegedly employed individuals who were not attorneys to perform this type of legal work.
The individuals who worked for the four businesses were, or claimed to be, notaries public. Each of the businesses is accused of attempting to capitalize on confusion about the powers of a notary public in the United States. In certain Latin American countries, "notarios publicos" may act as attorneys, prepare legal documents on behalf of clients, and provide legal advice. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) specifically warns immigrants that notaries public, "immigration consultants," or other such businesses cannot provide immigration legal advice or prepare legal documents on behalf of clients – although many claim the authority to do so.
"Businesses that seek to exploit their affinity to immigrant groups, and those that deliberately capitalize on confusion as to what a notary public can do in this country, too often victimize legal immigrants who are seeking to extend their visas or attain permanent residency," said Dow. "Notaries public in New Jersey are fully informed of what they can and cannot legally do. Some may exploit the ignorance of others, but they cannot plead ignorance about their own actions."
The complaints announced today follow those filed June 9 against businesses who are also accused of falsely representing that they were authorized to prepare immigration documents on behalf of clients (press release: www.njconsumeraffairs.com/press/immigrationsrv.htm). The Division of Consumer Affairs announced those complaints as part of "Combating Immigration Services Scams," a partnership with the Federal Trade Commission, US Department of Justice, USCIS, and other agencies.
The following four businesses are each accused of violating New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act and Advertising Regulations by misleading consumers into believing they were authorized to provide immigration legal advice, and to prepare and file legal documents with USCIS, when they were not authorized to do so; and charging hundreds of dollars for the preparation of USCIS legal documents, when not legally permitted to charge such fees:
Beltra's Agency, of Clifton, and its owners Beltra Gomez, Hector Gomez. Jr., and Henry Gomez;
Corazon Travel Agency, t/a Corazon Agency, of Paterson, and its owner, Rafael Garcia;
Helping Honduras, Inc., d/b/a/ Helping the Immigrant Community, of Union City, and its corporate secretary and program director, Blanca Hilda Cardenas;
Kingdom Vision Service Corporation d/b/a Kingdom Vision Multiservice, of West New York, and its president, Denise Perez.
Each of the four businesses allegedly placed Spanish-language advertisements in newspapers, offering immigration services, or offering help with "naturalization." The advertisements ran in Spanish-language publications including the New Jersey based Cambio and El Especialito. In the cases of Beltra's Agency and Corazon Travel, anonymous sources clipped out the newspaper ads and mailed them to a Division of Consumer Affairs investigator, as a tip about the company's alleged fraudulent practices.
"Consumers in need of immigration assistance should seek legal advice from legitimate sources only," said Thomas R. Calcagni, Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. "The Board of Immigration Appeals maintains a listing of attorneys who provide immigration services either for free or for little cost."
The USCIS "Find Legal Services" website, at www.uscis.gov/immigrationpractice, tells consumers, "You may file USCIS forms yourself, but many people choose to have help. You may need help writing in the answers . . . or translating the documents into English. You can get this type of limited help from anyone. This person should only charge you a small fee and not claim to have special knowledge of immigration law and procedure."
The website cautions that "Only attorneys or accredited representatives can: Give you legal advice about which forms to submit; explain immigration options you may have; [or] communicate with USCIS about your case." The USCIS website describes "accredited representatives" as individuals working for specific non-profit, religious, charitable, social service, or similar organizations, approved by the Board of Immigration Appeals. Such representatives "may only charge nominal (small) fees, if any, for legal services."
The USCIS website further notes that, "‘Notarios,' notary publics, immigration consultants and businesses cannot give you immigration legal advice. In many other countries, the word ‘notario' means that the individual is an attorney, but that is not true in the United States. If you need help with immigration issues, be very careful before paying money to anyone who is neither an attorney nor a BIA-accredited representative of a recognized organization."
Despite the federal government's restriction that non-attorneys and non-authorized agencies can only provide "limited" help for "a small fee," and that even accredited representatives can only charge small fees for the legal services they provide, the State alleges that Corazon Travel Agency, Kingdom Vision Service Corporation, and Helping Honduras, Inc., all quoted prices between $400 and $2,900 for preparing legal immigration documents, to an undercover Consumer Affairs investigator.
In addition to its enforcement action, the Division of Consumer Affairs is educating the public, and New Jersey's immigrant families, about immigration services scams. The Division has added a component on this topic to its consumer education materials and outreach events, including the FedUp (Fraud Education and Prevention) seminars that have reached more than 1,000 New Jersey senior citizens since January.
Additionally, the Division has developed and disseminates educational materials on "Combating Immigration Services Scams," available in English at www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov/press/ImmigrationScams.pdf and in Spanish at www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov/press/ImmigrationScamsSP.pdf.
The flyers explain that:
Only attorneys and certain other accredited representatives authorized by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, are authorized to prepare legal documents such as immigration forms, give advice on legal matters, or represent clients in a legal proceeding. Consumers seeking to learn whether an individual or organization is authorized to perform these services can visit www.USCIS.gov/immigrationpractice or call USCIS at 800-375-5283.
Scammers who pretend they are authorized to file immigration forms, often leave their victims facing financial losses, possible deportation, and the loss of irreplaceable documents such as birth certificates or passports.
Dishonest businesses often use advertisements designed to take advantage of cultural and linguistic misunderstandings. The term "notario publico," or "notary public," has been used to deceptively represent that a person is licensed to provide legal services, because the term has a very different meaning in some Latin American countries than it does in the United States.
Anyone who solicits business by falsely claiming to be an attorney is committing a violation of the Consumer Fraud Act and is subject to a civil penalty of $10,000; and anyone who knowingly engages in the unauthorized practice of law is committing a fourth degree crime and/or disorderly persons offense.
Legal immigrants and legal residents can reach out to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services for assistance with immigration papers. Those seeking legitimate immigration services can find educational materials at www.FTC.gov/immigration.
Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file a complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website, www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov, or by calling 800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.
Follow the Division of Consumer Affairs on Facebook, at http://www.facebook.com/pages/NJ-Division-of-Consumer-Affairs/112957465445651. Check our online calendar of upcoming Consumer Outreach events, at http://www.nj.gov/oag/ca/outreach/.
Deputy Attorney General Alina Wells, of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section, is representing the State in this action. Investigator Oscar Mejia in the Office of Consumer Protection conducted the investigation.
View Beltra's Agency Complaint
View Corazon Travel Agency Complaint
View Helping Honduras, Inc. Complaint
View Kingdom Vision Service Corporation Complaint