Federal officials are worried that immigration services scams are getting so convincing and sophisticated that many more immigrants are likely to be victimized.
The Internet has become the preferred vehicle for these scammers. They pose as lawyers and paralegals on websites that look remarkably similar to official government sites or those used by reputable immigration attorneys.
Government officials are concerned that the Obama administration's change allowing undocumented children to apply for "deferred action" and avoid deportation might invite more fraud and illegal activity. U.S. officials will begin accepting applications for the DREAM Act alternative on Aug. 15, 2012.
Scammers still work out of neighborhood storefronts, but more and more illegal practices are going high-tech and moving online. These phony websites can look very patriotic, with images of the Statue of Liberty, American flags or photos of smiling immigrants.
Don’t be fooled by appearances. Also, don’t fall prey to aggressive telemarketing campaigns. Many of the scammers will claim to be government representatives and pressure you over the phone.
In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission shut down an Internet operation that duped immigrants into paying fees between $200 and $2,500 for fraudulent services. The business even charged for counseling over the phone that was done by unqualified telemarketers, not lawyers.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is devoting more resources to stopping these cyber criminals. Federal officials are working with state and local law enforcement agencies to makes cases and arrests.
USCIS also is turning up the volume on an outreach campaign. The government is reaching out to immigrant communities with advertising and website information in Spanish and English to warn immigrants about fraudulent businesses.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association has a website directory of qualified attorneys in your area. Immigrants can also check with the state Bar Association to find out the standing of prospective legal counsel.
Remember, do your homework before you do your hiring. Beware of businesses that charge upfront fees, or those that claim government contacts or guarantee successful outcomes.
The Better Business Bureau and other consumer protection groups offer these warnings to immigrants looking for legal help:
Don’t take legal advice from notarios or notary publics. Notaries are not lawyers in the United States and are prohibited from giving legal advice. Many immigrants are confused about these titles.
If you do go online, make sure you’re dealing with a real government website.The phony sites can fool you if you’re not careful. Stick with the USCIS, where you’ll find the most current and accurate information about requirements and fees.
Don’t pay for government forms. USCIS will send them to you for free, or you can download them from its website.
Never turn over your original documents to anyone claiming to be a qualified practitioner. Your passport, birth certificate and other important paperwork should always remain in your possession.
Get translation help. If language is a problem, find someone you trust to assist you. Find someone fluent in English in your community to help. Don’t sign something you don’t understand.
Never sign a blank form and never let someone sign a form for you. The government takes your signature very seriously and you should too.
Anyone who tells you to submit false or inaccurate information to the government is not someone you want on your case. Be truthful and be accurate.
Before hiring an attorney, ask about fees. Ask your lawyer in advance what the charges will be for all services. Don’t be afraid to get that in writing and save your receipts when you make payments.
Keep copies of everything. Maintain your own file with all correspondence you receive from the government and copies of everything you’ve sent in. A paper trail is important.