Notary Publics Exploit Language Quirk to Scam Immigrants in Texas

In the latest efforts by states to curb the problem of unqualified people offering immigration services, six notary publics in Texas have been accused of attracting customers by falsely claiming they had the skill or knowledge to handle immigration cases.

The action is part of the state's ongoing investigation of immigration services. Since 2002, the Texas Attorney General's Office has shut down more than 50 businesses for providing unauthorized legal services.Scam artists have long exploited the misunderstanding between the term "notary" and the similar-sounding Spanish term "notario publico," used in Latin America to describe highly experienced, specialized attorneys, Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement.

"We have no shortage of cases here," Teresa Farfan, spokeswoman for the agency, told WalletPop. Farfan said states with large concentrations of immigrants tend to have a high number of unauthorized people offering immigration-related services.

New York, Washington, California, Illinois, Kansas, and Tennessee are among the other states that taken action in this area.

Under federal law, only licensed attorneys and organizations accredited by the Department of Justice's Board of Immigration Appeals are allowed to offer immigration consulting services.

The Texas actions charge all six notary publics with unlawfully offering immigration-related services that they weren't accredited or licensed to provide, Abbott said.

The state sought and obtained a temporary restraining order and injunction against six defendants: Anna Trejo; Dora Maria Resendez; Josefina Fonseca, who does business as Fonseca Services; Maria Alvarado, who does business as Mary's Bookkeeping & Income Tax; Maria Yolanda Solis; Emilio Zabala, who does business as Azteca Immigration.

None of the notary publics could be reached for comment.

Texas law authorizes notaries public to witness the signing of legal documents -- but forbids them from providing immigration services unless they hold a separate license to practice law.

The enforcement actions seek civil penalties of up to $20,000 for each violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

In a related story, the Federal Trade Commission shut down an elaborate scheme that fooled prospective immigrants into paying hundreds of dollars in fees to a phony U.S. government agency.

For consumers looking for help with immigration questions, see the California Attorney General Office's "Immigration Consultants" for tips on selecting someone to assist you.

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