Federal authorities have launched a nationwide crackdown on scam artists who prey on immigrants hoping to become U.S. citizens. Officials say the problem is growing.
Con artists promise to help illegal immigrants stay in the country legally, but in the end leave the people penniless and in more trouble with the immigration service.
A lot of friends told Guatemalan immigrant Catalina Alvarado to go see an immigration lawyer near her home in Hollywood, Calif. They told her he works magic and would get her a work permit and even a green card.
She says the man, Yolman Camacho, who is also from Guatemala, promised it all. He was so polite, so nice. She paid him $5,000, and he did get her a work permit. That was 10 years ago, and the promises kept coming.
He then asked for $5,000 to help her husband, and another $5,000 for her daughter. In total, she paid him $25,000. But no one got anything.
When she finally went to the U.S. immigration office to follow up, she found out that Camacho had put false information on the forms. Immigration officials voided her file.
U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. says he has heard too many stories about desperate immigrants being swindled.
"We are talking about scam artists that are victimizing this community; frankly, they are scum artists, in my humble opinion," he says.
This month, Birotte and other officials launched a public awareness campaign. The ads are running in major U.S. cities with large immigrant communities, especially Los Angeles.
"We have been dealing with this issue for the last 20 years," says Rigo Reyes, who heads the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs.
He says the scam is always the same. It involves an immigrant who ends up trusting in these so-called paralegals or notaries.
"Whatever we want to call them," Reyes says, they "promise that they will help the consumer legalize their status."
Reyes says the fake experts con people out of a lot of money, fill out forms incorrectly and miss important deadlines. One recent case involved a woman who defrauded thousands of clients. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Despite some successful prosecutions, many immigrant advocates complain that this latest crackdown is too little too late.
Immigration Attorney Alma Rosa Nieto says she's just glad something is finally being done.
"It's not too little," she says. "I think it is great. I commend the service for doing this finally. Too late? Yes, too late."
Nieto says she thinks the problem is becoming more prevalent because of the bad economy and so many people being out of work.
"What do you want to hear when you are desperate and you don't have a job and you want to get a work permit? That you have a chance, and that's how they end up being like a magnet to these thieves," Nieto says.
For Catalina Alvarado, it's too late. She says she can't fix her immigration problems and knows she's not going to get her money back. She just hopes Yolman Camacho is found and prosecuted.
The L.A. County Department of Consumer Affairs says it's investigating Camacho and has two-dozen registered complaints against him.