Each year, millions of people request some type of immigration benefit from the U.S. government. With so many applicants, complicated immigration laws, and confusion around correct filing processes, it’s no wonder that many immigrants fall victim to immigration scams.
Immigration scams are not only perpetrated by those commonly referred to as “notarios” (the Spanish word for notary). There are also unscrupulous attorneys who have little to no knowledge of or experience with immigration laws and procedures. And there are the people who falsely claim to have special connections to government agencies.
Learn how to protect yourself against notarios and immigration scams to prevent yourself and your family members from being victims.
Why Immigrants Are Common Targets for Scammers
Scammers often target the most vulnerable groups. Immigrants, along with the elderly, are prime targets for scammers. There are many factors that make immigrants vulnerable to scams, including:
- Many have a minimal understanding of the English language
- The immigration process can be very complicated
- Many immigrants don’t understand the cultural norms of the country
Immigration scams can hurt immigrants in a variety of ways. They can lose money, face identity theft, and even be deported.
Types of Immigration Scams
There are many immigration scams out there. Some scams have been around for years, while others start every day. Scammers are constantly adapting as law enforcement becomes aware of their techniques. Some scams are abandoned altogether, while others are adapted.
Notarios Posing As Lawyers
This common scam has been around for a long time. In Latin America and Europe, a notario, or notary public, is someone with an education that gives them the equivalent of a license to practice law. However, in the United States, this position is quite different. A notary public in the U.S. is someone licensed to witness signatures. The position has no educational requirements.
Many scammers will use this difference to exploit immigrants. Scammers advertising themselves as notarios often give people coming from these regions the impression that they are qualified legal professionals when, in fact, they tend to have little to no legal training.
Once an immigrant hires one of these notarios, the scammer may use multiple methods to get money from their victim. They charge their clients a high fee and often fail to file any paperwork or apply for immigration benefits for which the immigrant is not eligible.
It is important to know that there are only two types of groups allowed to provide legal advice about your immigration case and communicate with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on your behalf.
You can work with an attorney in good standing or an accredited non-lawyer. If in doubt, contact USCIS to inquire about the legitimacy of the person you hired.
Scammers Posing As Government Agents
These scams tend to involve scammers pretending to work for USCIS or Immigration and Customs (ICE) contacting immigrants and claiming there is a problem with their immigration status.
Scammers using this method will often try to intimidate their victims with threats of potential deportation. However, they will offer to fix the problem for a fee. They rely on the fear that the immigrant feels over potentially having to leave the country to keep them from asking too many questions and simply giving the money to make the problem go away.
Another variation on this scam is people pretending to be from USCIS or ICE requesting personal information from their victim. They then use what they learn to steal the victim’s identity.
Green Card Lottery Scams
In this specific scam, a victim gets notified that they have won the Diversity Visa Lottery and will thus attain a green card. They are asked to send a money order via Western Union so that their application can be processed.
Beware of anytime money is requested in immigration proceedings. All required payments are processed through secure payment channels.
There are many scam websites out there made to look like official government websites. Scammers attempt to lure victims to these sights where they get them to enter personal information and pay processing fees.
Not only can this lead to a loss of funds and stolen identity, but it can also result in victims believing that their immigration paperwork is being processed when in actuality nothing is being done.
Identifying a Green Card Scam
If you are going through the immigration process, you should be aware of how to spot these and other common scams. The good news is that as long as you know what to look for, most scams are fairly easy to identify. Some common signs of a scam include:
- Receiving news that seems too good to be true
- Receiving a guarantee from someone helping with the immigration process
- Not receiving an explanation of the process or why you are eligible
- Payment requested through Paypal, Western Union, or other odd platforms
- Government websites or emails that don’t end in .gov
Often, the name that is used to identify the sender of an email sounds official to hide the clearly fake email address used by the scammer. Hover over the name of the sender to identify the email address that is being used.
Nine Ways to Protect Yourself
Scammers charge immigrants and their families sometimes thousands of dollars. And all too often, they give the wrong advice. Consequences can be extreme, with certain victims ending up in immigration detention, getting deported, or even being barred from ever returning to the United States.
- Don’t believe the hype: Don’t believe everything you are told. Do your own research.
- Never pay for attorney referrals: Referrals should always be free.
- If you hire an immigration attorney, make sure they are practicing legally: If a license isn’t displayed, ask to see one. Verify validity through state bar websites.
- Avoid signing blank forms: If you must sign, get a copy and review it before it gets filed.
- Always get proof that shows your applications have actually been filed: The government will provide a filing receipt.
- Get a written contract: A written contract can protect your rights
- Get a receipt: Having proof of purchase will protect you in a dispute
- Don’t let anyone “find” you a sponsor or spouse to get you a green card: Immigration through marriage is a common way to get a green card, but a false marriage for these purposes is fraud. If you are caught, your immigration chances drop to nearly nothing.
- Follow your gut: If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Don’t put blind faith in someone who claims to be offering help.
Getting Real Help With the Immigration Process
It is vital that you choose carefully when turning to someone for help with the immigration petition process. Even if you avoid scammers, you could find yourself on the wrong path by following the well-intended but misinformed guidance of a friend or family member.
If you are looking for meaningful help with the immigration process, you should turn to a qualified professional. An attorney or accredited representative working for a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recognized organization can help you with immigration advice.
When researching attorneys, make sure to choose one who is in good standing with the professional association of their state. Make sure that any accredited representative works for an organization listed on the Recognition & Accreditation Program page on the DOJ’s website.
Report Immigration Scams
In order to stop dishonest notarios, immigration scams, and fraud, it is important to report the offense to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as well as state authorities. You need to provide as much information about the scam and the scammer as possible. However, you do not need to reveal personal information about yourself if you are uncomfortable doing so.
In fact, you can ask your immigration attorney to use their name or the name of their law firm on the report. The FTC and local authorities work to shut down scams as quickly as possible. However, new scams are always arising, and without help from the victims, it can be hard to stay on top of the latest methods used by these criminals.
If you receive an email that seems suspicious, you should forward it to the USCIS for investigation rather than respond to the sender.
Being aware of the potential for scams and remaining on the lookout as you attempt to complete the immigration process is the best way to protect yourself.