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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

State Bar workshops give seniors, immigrants tools to fight fraud

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

How do you ensure a charity is legitimate before giving money? If you get a call from someone claiming to be with the IRS and suspect it’s a scam, what should you do? How can you make sure that you are hiring a licensed lawyer?

Santa Clara Townhall
Seniors at the Santa Clara Senior Center educate themselves against fraud – Photo by California Statewide Law Enforcement Association

Those were just a few of the questions addressed last month at a series of free seminars aimed at giving consumers the information they need to protect themselves against fraud.

The State Bar joined other regulatory agencies at the free workshops in March and April. Some seminars were tailored to a senior citizen audience and others focused on the topic of immigration fraud.

For the State Bar, the outreach effort represents a shift in its approach to consumer protection. Instead of only reacting to complaints of attorney wrongdoing, the bar wants to arm consumers with the information they need to protect themselves, State Bar CEO Joseph Dunn said.

Watch a video of a recent workshop.

“Fundamentally, what we’re trying to do is to prevent harm in the first place,” said Dunn, who facilitated audience questions at several events.

The bar joined other law enforcement and regulatory agencies – including the Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Bureau of Real Estate, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association and state and federal prosecutors – in offering advice to consumers on a wide range of topics such as how to prevent identity theft and how to spot potential scams.

State Bar President Luis J. Rodriguez, addressing a crowd of about 80 people at the Irvine Senior Center on April 18, said he joined the legal profession in order to help people but unfortunately there are some attorneys who would harm their clients.

“We’re here to show you otherwise. That we do care about you,” Rodriguez said. “I’ll do whatever I can to make sure we maintain the integrity of the profession.”

Joseph Dunn
State Bar CEO Joseph Dunn facilitates questions from the audience in Santa Clara – Photo by California Statewide Law Enforcement Association

Rodriguez told the group how to research an attorney’s license history on the State Bar website. When it comes to fees, he advised them to ask questions and get it in writing. Information about filing a complaint against an attorney is online at Also, the bar’s Client Security Fund is there to reimburse victims of lawyer theft.

The California Bureau of Real Estate has a similar recovery fund for those defrauded by real estate licensees, Commissioner Wayne Bell said.

“If the file arrives on our desk, it’s too late,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Riordan. Even if the criminals are put behind bars, the victims aren’t always able to recover their lost money. “Play defense. There may not be get-rich-quick schemes. There are definitely lose-money-quick schemes.”

Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine, who sponsored the event, urged the group to share what they learned with their friends and family members.

More than 100 people attended a similar “senior scam stopper” seminar on April 5 at Santa Clara Senior Center sponsored by Assemblyman Bob Wiekowski, D-Fremont.

“It’s critical that each and every one of you do your homework,” Wiekowski told them.

Unfortunately, senior citizens are disproportionately targeted by scammers, the presenters said.

“They prey on the fact that you’re good people,” said Kenneth Ehrman of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association.

The Santa Clara workshop, held just 10 days before the IRS tax deadline, drew a number of questions from consumers who received calls purporting to be from the IRS. The IRS never asks for credit card, debit card or prepaid card information over the phone, according to a recent consumer alert issued by the agency.

In response to a question about how to research charities, the presenters did some quick Internet research to confirm that the state Attorney General regulates charities and professional fundraisers who raise money on their behalf.

The workshops focused on preventing immigration fraud were conducted in Spanish and English in Los Angeles and Chula Vista, near San Diego. The Los Angeles event was sponsored by Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, and the event at the Chula Vista Public Library by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. State Bar representatives talked about AB 1159, a state law that went into effect Oct. 5 that made it illegal for immigration lawyers and consultants to take money for services related to immigration reform until Congress acts.

The bar distributed handouts about the new law as well as its popular series of consumer education guides. Free copies of the guides are available for ordering online.