In 1996, an undocumented young man in the Easy Bay was tired of being paid under the table for his work, so he decided to do something about his legal status. Two friends recommended him to a notario—or notary—who had helped them obtain work permits. The man trusted his friends blindly, so on the advice of the notario, he filled out and signed some documents and was told that a work permit would be mailed to his home. The man walked out of the notario location without knowing that he had just signed an application for asylum, something that he did not qualify for and that would later put him into deportation proceedings. Just like that, he became the victim of notary fraud.
Notary fraud is a common set-up in which notaries unlawfully give legal advice to immigrants, and in many cases, pretend to be immigration attorneys. The scam often involves the notary reviewing a victim’s case, choosing which legal documents are appropriate for their case, helping complete these documents, and submitting them to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Office—all acts only lawyers have the authority to do.
Because the notary is not really an attorney, they often give bad advice. Scam victims then file residency, visa, or citizenship forms that are not applicable for their case, or fill them out with incorrect information. Filing bad paperwork can cause problems for them ranging from legal challenges to even deportation. In addition to losing their money, they are not allowed to apply for citizenship or residency again.
It wasn’t until 2012 when this man, who now happily married with two children, came into Landerholm Immigration, A.P.C in San Francisco, now located in Oakland, to fix his legal status. The legal firm specializes in fighting for the rights of immigrants who are facing deportation, and often represents people cases like this one. By this point, the man had discovered that he had a removal order against him because he had missed an interview for his supposed asylum case. That later turned into being called for an immigration court hearing—which he also missed.
Landerholm Immigration, A.P.C, has represented many immigrants the East Bay who have been scammed by notary fraud. “What I really think about notarios is that it’s people looking for the easy solution, that easy way out, but it backfires,” said Otis Landerhome, the firm’s founding attorney. “I want each individual to just be more cautious and be smart about it. Immigration issues are complex and they’re not going away.”
Immigration experts and advocates say that notary fraud is one of the biggest issues facing the undocumented community. “It is also a big problem in the East Bay and surrounding areas in Northern California,” said Barbara Pinto, an immigration senior staff attorney at the Centro Legal de la Raza, a legal service agency for immigrants’ rights, located in Oakland.
It is hard to know exactly how many cases of notary fraud there are in the state, because many cases go unreported. Landerhome said that he sees about 60 cases of notary fraud per year at his law firm.
“I definitely think [notary fraud] is underreported. I think that some people are the victims of notary fraud and they don’t even know it. I think that some people are committing notary fraud and they don’t even know it,” Landerhome said, adding that many cases are not reported due to fear or shame.
According to the State Bar of Califonia, in 2016,146 immigration-related complaints related to non-attorneys were filed with the bar. These were more than one fourth of the total non-attorney complaints during that year. That same year, the bar sent to law enforcement 10 cases of illegal practice not authorized by lawyers.
Notary fraud works because it targets those who have the biggest hopes of gaining legal status in the United States and bringing peace to their lives. These are vulnerable people, and perfect victims because—thanks to the language barrier—their understanding of American legal terminology and how the system works is impaired.
Individuals setting up phony legal offices take advantage of the confusion between the terms “notary public” and “notario público.” In Mexico and Latin American countries, notario público is usually understood to denote a lawyer. But in the U.S., a notary public is a person with no legal training and very limited legal authority. According to the National Notary Association (NNA), in California, a notary public is an official whose duty is to screen the signers of important documents for their true identities, their willingness to sign, and their awareness of the contents of the document or transactions. They receive a small fee for attesting to the validity of a signature on a document.
Fraud occurs when these notaries practice law without a license, by giving legal advice, preparing cases, or telling individuals that they are eligible for certain benefits. “As consultants, they [notary public officials] can only fill out forms, but cannot give any legal advice. We see them cross that line very often,” Pinto said.
Pinto said that even though there are a great number of nonprofits and private attorneys who specialize in immigration cases, there are still not enough resources available, causing immigrants to end up in the wrong hands. “People do end up going to these untrusted places,” she said, which can range from notary offices to attorneys who may not be experienced enough in immigration law to take on a specific case.
“Because most documents are legal documents, there is always a temptation for a notary to try to explain what a document is doing,” said Bill Anderson, vice president of government affairs for the National Notary Association (NNA), about the fine line that can exist between assisting someone who is filling out an immigration form and giving legal advice.
The NNA is a nonprofit organization that provides information, services, and notary public classes at a national level. The organization, which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, has informed notaries about this particular form of malpractice for several years now, by clearly stating what a notary can and cannot do when dealing with immigration-related forms.
Anderson points out that the number of notaries who do not follow the law, and give unlawful legal advice, is “very slim.” “Notary fraud is more perpetrated by people who know exactly what they’re doing and are trying to take advantage of people,” said Anderson. “But the vast majority of them are outstanding individuals who serve the public according to the law.”
Unlike attorneys, who are overseen by the State Bar of California, the actions of notary public officials are not supervised to ensure they are ethically compliant when representing their clients. But California does have several restrictions that notaries must follow in order to avoid malpractice, including the clarification that an immigration consultant cannot represent a person in an immigration proceeding before the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and that notaries may not advertise as an immigration consultant. Because of the likelihood of mistranslation, the Spanish term notario público is prohibited when advertising a notary public, and those who advertise in another language other than English must specify that they are not attorneys and do not give legal advice.
In February, the state bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel issued an alert to warn the public about notary fraud. The alert was issued in response to reports of immigration raids in Northern California, when it was expected that people looking for immigration help might run into scams.
“Everyone in California deserves access to legal services. The recent federal immigration actions in California, uncertainty for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, and the ongoing concerns faced by our immigrant communities increase the potential that unscrupulous people will seek to take advantage of those in the most need of legal help,” Steven Moawad, Chief Trial Counsel of the State Bar of California, stated in the news release. “We want to be sure that all Californians know how to access the legal services they need and how to avoid and report fraud.”
When people discover they have been victims of notary fraud, it is often far too late for attorneys like Pinto and Landerholm to help them. “So normally we see it, unfortunately, at the denial stage,” Pinto said, once a person’s immigration application has been rejected. “Once they realize that it’s been denied, and then they realize, ‘Oh my God, this person did a horrible job.’ Or they have already gone somewhere else to get a second opinion.”
Pinto said that in her experience dealing with these cases, people who seek legal aid from notaries spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars before they uncover the scam. This highlights the extent of the problem of notary scamming, as in California, the fee limit for notaries who are bonded as immigration consultants is $15 per set of forms.
“Often people go to the notary because they think it’s cheaper, but what people don’t realize is that once that notary screws you over, it costs three times as much as to fix it,” Landerholm said.
But it can be hard for victims to complain to the notary to reclaim their money or take legal action against them. “These people [scammers] shift around and take advantage of people, and then they go dark. They set up shops somewhere else, they are hard to track down, and those are the kind of people that do that,” said Anderson.
According to Pinto, there are several factors that cause people to be victims of scams when seeking legal aid. Going in for a consultation can be a scary and anxiety-producing experience for some, as their immigration status is on stake. The language barrier is the most important obstacle, as people who are not English speakers may prefer to seek help from someone who speaks Spanish, which exposes them to scamming notaries.
Others are desperate to obtain legal status, and go along with false promises, the biggest warning sign for notary fraud. “No one can guarantee you success in a case, because it’s not up to the person who is filling out the form or filing. It’s up to Immigration, and it’s in their control,” Pinto said. “But they can tell you based on your eligibility or based on your case facts, what are the strengths and what are the weaknesses.”
The Centro Legal de la Raza offers immigrants’ rights presentations to the community, and notary fraud is one of their most common topics. During these presentations, people are encouraged to ask questions and to always seek a second opinion. Keeping copies of documents and receipts is also a must that is often forgotten, Pinto said. She has seen cases where victims of notary fraud have no idea which documents have been processed for their legal case and do not have copies of the documents they submitted to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Office.
Landerholm Immigration, A.P.C offers the immigrant community free 15-minute phone evaluations to discuss a person’s legal case. They also have a large online presence such as a Facebook page, blogs, and Youtube videos, so that people can see what a consultation is like. All of these resources are available to ease the process of coming in for a consultation. “I feel like the simple idea of them coming into like a law office is very scary,” Landerholm said.
But once people realize they have become victims of notary fraud, limited options are available to them. Victims can file complaints to the State Bar by filling out a non-attorney unlicensed practice of law form, which requires the person to describe details of the scam, such as if it was clear that a non-attorney was hired to give legal advice and actually gave that advice. Complaints can also be filed with the California Attorney General’s Office by filling out a form and also specifying information about how the transaction worked.
Back in 2012, Landerholm was able to reopen his client’s case and file a petition lawful permanent residency through his client’s wife. The man is currently a green card holder, awaiting becoming eligible for citizenship. Even though Landerholm’s team was able to clean up the mess that a notario had created, many are not so lucky.
Landerholm believes that immigration issues are the “social justice problem of our time.” “Every person that we lose to deportation is another societal problem,” he said. “It makes our society weaker.”