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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Bar hosts immigration fraud summit

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

Undocumented immigrants are not only more vulnerable to fraud than most, but they’re also less likely to come forward to report when they’ve been victimized.

“They just don’t want to become part of any system,” said Rigo Reyes, chief of investigations at the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs. That’s why it’s important for state and federal agencies to focus on prevention efforts in addition to enforcement.

“If we can try to prevent harm in the first place, I think we’ve done our job in a more effective way,” he said, speaking at an interagency summit hosted by the State Bar of California’s Office of the Chief Trial Counsel last month.

The summit brought together more than 80 people and featured representatives from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Federal Trade Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, National Asian American Coalition, Los Angeles Police Department, the California Attorney General’s Office, National Council of La Raza and legal nonprofits.

Participants said it was an opportunity for them to share what they have learned about the best ways to fight fraud and connect with consumers. Such partnerships also help the agencies coordinate their enforcement actions, they said.

The issue is timely. In November 2014, President Obama issued an executive order protecting certain groups from deportation, although applications were not yet being accepted as of March 2. See the federal website for the latest information.

There are scammers who are taking advantage of immigrants by taking money in exchange for fake promises of help, the panelists said.  

Prosecutors in Los Angeles and Santa Clara last month announced new efforts to crack down on immigration fraud and warn consumers of scams.

The bar has issued a warning about possible notario fraud. State law prohibits the use of the term “notario” by non-attorneys because scammers have used the term to gain credibility with Spanish-speaking immigrants. The bar also set up an immigration hotline (866-879-4532) for consumers to ask questions or report fraud by lawyers or non-lawyers.

For attorneys who are providing legal services related to immigration, the bar’s Office of Professional Competence has written an ethics checklist.

Last year, in anticipation of legislation to expand the bar’s civil authority to crack down on the unauthorized practice of law, the bar had taken steps to hire a team within the Office of General Counsel to investigate and bring civil injunctions against scammers.

But that legislation was never enacted and a Board of Trustees committee last month recommended that enforcement authority remain with the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel.

“We’re putting these cases back where they belong,” said Trustee Miriam Krinsky of the Regulation and Discipline Committee. “This will best enable the bar to efficiently investigate and prosecute members of our community who are harming the public.”

So far, the trial counsel’s office has not seen an uptick in immigration fraud complaints. From October 2013 to December 2014, the office received more than 16,000 complaints and only about 100 were related to potential immigration fraud.