Immigration

Notario Fraud Scammers Target Houston’s Immigrant Communities

A form of tax preparer fraud, this type of scam can leave immigrants vulnerable to deportation

Scammers are profiting off Houston's immigrant communities through a scheme called notario fraud. Pretending to be licensed attorneys, these non-certified notarios cash in on people unfamiliar with U.S. law.

Often these scammers speak Spanish or Vietnamese to gain trust through their cultural connections with an immigrant community.

Immigrants hire them to file taxes, work on immigration papers and handle other legal matters. Scammers then steal tax return money, over-charge clients and botch paperwork.

"It's a problem that at the worst could lead to deportation and, honestly, at the best the immigrant just loses money," said Lisa Virgen, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid. She’s currently completing a fellowship in Houston that focuses on notario fraud.

Virgen said both cultural and language barriers can cause an immigrant to trust someone they shouldn’t.

"They're coming from a country where a notario is someone that's highly esteemed, is respected in the community and has all these credentials to practice law. So, when they come across this person in the United States, of course they assume this is a person that could help me with my immigration case," said Virgen.

She's working with a local notario fraud prevention group to spread the word about the issue and improve legal assistance.

The group recently released a tool kit to instruct pro bono lawyers on how to file notario fraud lawsuits statewide.

Though she sees a lot of notario fraud, Virgen said it’s difficult to know just how widespread the problem is.

Victims fear deportation if they speak out, or may not know they can take legal action. Virgen said some people never realize they are being scammed or over-charged.

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Elizabeth Trovall

Elizabeth Trovall

Immigration Reporter

Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall's work has been featured on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, Latino...

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