A California woman pitching herself as an immigration consultant was recently indicted for defrauding clients to the tune of more than $100,000, the Virginian-Pilot reports.
Through her seemingly unlicensed business, called Professional U.S. Immigration Services, Helen Kennedy targeted mostly Iranian immigrants from June 2016 to January 2018, according to court records. In online ads, Kennedy (aka Helen Abdi) allegedly called herself an immigration consultant, even though she wasn’t registered with state or federal authorities and isn’t a lawyer.
And she allegedly made big promises: She told her clients she could easily get them citizenship, green cards, or asylum, and even pledged to provide refunds if she couldn’t deliver, according to court documents. Plus she allegedly told clients she was in touch with businesses that could sponsor them for work visas.
Instead, she never filed paperwork on behalf of any of them, stopped communicating with anyone who complained, and never refunded any of her clients. She allegedly made $101,800 from the scheme.
Kennedy’s alleged scheme isn’t an isolated incident. Earlier this month, a New York woman named Maria Sanchez-Dios was arrested for charging immigrants additional fees — that weren’t actually required by immigration authorities — to help them with their cases, police said.
And in June, a Brooklyn man allegedly defrauded three immigrants, claiming he could get them green cards and work permits. He even threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they tried to get their money back, prosecutors said. In 2018, New Jersey’s consumer affairs department found 28 businesses that allegedly charged customers for legal services they weren’t actually able to provide.
In California, complaints about the unauthorized practice of immigration law doubled from December 2018 to June 2019, a spokesperson for the California State Bar told the Santa Barbara Independent. There were 106 reports in April alone, though experts are unsure whether the increase in complaints is due to an increase in scammers, since the state has recently made complaint forms more accessible.
This kind of deception is so widespread that immigration lawyers have a name for it: notario fraud. In some Spanish-speaking countries, the term “notario publico,” which translates to notary public, can refer to people who are licensed to practice law — but in the U.S., notary publics are only authorized to notarize forms.
It’s hard to tell how many people fall prey to this kind of fraud, lawyers say, because many victims don’t report it to the authorities.
Reid Trautz, the director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Practice & Professionalism Center, said many of these fraudsters target people in their own communities, and often create new problems for immigrants trying to change their immigration status.
“When we hear these stories, the notarios are often more expensive than the lawyer would have charged initially,” Trautz, who helps run the website Stop Notario Fraud, told VICE News. According to Trautz, one issue with notarios and immigration consultants is that they can put people on ICE’s radar for the first time.
“There are lots of missteps that get people into trouble. They think they’re saving a couple of bucks, or they’re enticed by somebody in their community who seems honest,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest problems: An immigrant says, ‘Oh, my neighbor got his green card through cancellation of removal. I’ll ask around. And someone says, ‘Oh, we can do that for you’” — even if they can’t.
Cover: In this May 30, 2019 photo, immigrant families show paperwork to enter an immigration court in an office building in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.