Thursday, February 13, 2003

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Attorney General Abbott Targets Fraudulent "Notarios" And Others Who Scam Immigrants

SAN ANTONIO - Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today issued a warning about an ongoing scam targeting Hispanic immigrants throughout Texas perpetrated by con artists posing as licensed attorneys or other legal experts.

Accompanied by members of the local clergy, consular officials, and nonprofit organizations, Attorney General Abbott announced a public outreach effort to educate potential targets about ways they can protect themselves from this type of crime.

Abbott also announced a judgment against a Travis County woman perpetrating this type of fraud against immigrants in the Austin area.

The scam plays off the similar sounds but different meanings of the English term "notary" and the Spanish term "notario."

In Texas, a notary is someone licensed to witness the signing of legal documents. In most Latin American countries, however, a "notario" implies that the person is a licensed attorney. Texas law specifically prevents notaries from providing any type of immigration service unless they hold a separate license to practice law.

In a common scam, a person obtains a notary public license in Texas yet presents themself to Spanish-speaking clients as a "notario publico" or licensed attorney who can help the customer with the immigration process.

Many con artists charge hundreds or thousands of dollars to allegedly provide legal assistance in processing INS applications. However, in many cases, the scam artists disappear with the money; charge high fees for filing unnecessary documents; or perform poor quality services that jeopardize clients' cases.

"The abuses perpetrated by fraudulent 'notarios' and their likes have caused much suffering for Texas families," said Attorney General Abbott. "These schemes also create chaos in an already overburdened immigration system," he added.

The Travis County judgment was against Barbara Seigert, a notary public, who had offered to fill out and process immigration forms on behalf of consumers. Today's judgment stops Ms. Seigert from selling her services to immigrants or using the Spanish terms "notario" or "notario publico" in her advertising. She also faces more than $4,000 in fines, attorneys fees, and restitution. Repeat violators of the notary statute can face jail time.

The Office of the Attorney General will hold an open house in San Antonio on Saturday, February 15, from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. to take reports from victims scammed by fraudulent notarios publicos in the area. On that date, affected consumers in San Antonio can file complaints in person at Catholic Charities of San Antonio, 1405 North Main, Lower Level.

The Attorney General's efforts will be assisted by Mexican consulate and immigration advocates. Similar events will take place later this year in other Texas cities. The outreach events organized by Attorney General Abbott serve to encourage consumers to file reports against those who perpetrate these frauds. Although scams against immigrants have been a longstanding problem in Texas, many consumers are hesitant to report the incidents to authorities.

"For too long victims have been silent. This has allowed hundreds of rogue notaries and other operators to line their pockets and provide little in the way of service," he said.

Victims can also call the Attorney General's office toll free at 1-800-252-8011 or visit the Attorney General's Web site at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov to obtain complaint forms, which are available in both Spanish and English.