It has become an increasingly common scheme: "Experts" charge desperate immigrants for what they claim are real work permits, or other papers that will legalize their status in the United States.
In the end, all the con artist does is take the money and run.
Roberto Fernandez ran La Guadalupana Immigration Services in Santa Ana, where he allegedly charged customers as much as $8,000 for papers supposedly legalizing their status. He was arrested in March.
Roberto Leums went to jail for a similar scheme. By providing bogus immigration data, his company defrauded more than 200 people out of thousands of dollars.
Unsuspecting people, many making no more than minimum wage, are duped into hiring non-lawyers to handle their immigration affairs. The scam artists do nothing more than file frivolous papers and pocket the cash. The result often is deportation, because deadlines are missed or the wrong forms are filed.
"Not only does it leave families penniless, but it leaves their American dreams shattered," said Phil Lam, president of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Assn.
Officials say it's nearly impossible to determine the number of victims in California, since most fear being reported to immigration authorities if they complain.
"I think it has gone up over the last decade as the recent immigrant population grew," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. The more people who are susceptible to such schemes, he said, the more the number will rise.
According to the federal Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, fraud cases of all types have jumped 27% nationwide this year. In California, where immigrants make up more than 25% of the population, authorities say they see fraud increasing, although in some jurisdictions the tracking of con games like these may have begun only recently.
In January, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer was asked to intervene on behalf of almost 300 Korean immigrants in the Bay Area who were facing deportation. They had paid several immigration brokers as much as $30,000 each for green cards. Authorities said the cards had been obtained illegally and were therefore not valid.
Lockyer established the Office of Immigrant Assistance two years ago, and it has filed charges against 14 unlawful immigration businesses, said spokeswoman Hallye Jordan.
There are legitimate non-lawyers who are qualified to help complete forms, translate materials, obtain and submit necessary documents and find legal aid. They are called immigration consultants, and each is required to post a $50,000 bond with the secretary of state. There are about 700 of them on the books.
To find illegal consultants, authorities often thumb through foreign-language phone books and target business areas in immigrant communities that specialize in legal assistance.
That's how the Los Angeles city attorney's immigration fraud strike force broke up a network of 18 immigration consultants in the Pico-Union area in May. The office is now focusing on the Asian American community, authorities said.
"These 'lawyers,' or 'legal associates,' or 'consultants,' put a placard up on the wall and hold themselves out as being a lawyer," said Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.
Within Cooley's office, the Consumer Protection Division acts as a clearinghouse for immigration fraud cases. In the last year, this type of scam represented about 25% of the caseload.
"We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Kathleen Tuttle, who is co-chairwoman of the county's immigration fraud task force. "Not everybody finds us."
The key to the scam is culture, Lam said.
Victims, he said, trust the perpetrator because they have the same ethnic and cultural background.
"Someone sees in the Chinese local paper, in Chinese, an advertisement, and they go into that place," said Deputy Dist. Atty. and former State Bar President Karen Nobomoto. When they get there, "they're told, 'Of course I'm a lawyer.' "
The name of a company is often a good indicator of legitimacy. According to the State Bar, the name of the lawyer has to be in the title of the firm.
"So if you go to the office and it's XYZ immigration service and they say, 'We have lawyers,' say, 'Let me see your business license,' " said immigration attorney Wei Wong. "Does it have the lawyers' name in it? If it doesn't, they're not a lawyer."
In many Spanish-speaking communities, the con usually hinges on the word notario.
A notario in Latin America is a lawyer. In the United States, a notary is simply an official witness to a document signing. The play on words is used to dupe immigrants into thinking a notary is a lawyer.
"They prey on the meaning of this term," said Maribel Medina, president of the Mexican American Bar Assn.
Many of the victims have viable cases for legal residency but don't get the chance because phony lawyers overlook immigration deadlines, Medina said.
Each case is different, but generally people can qualify for lawful U.S. residency if they are sponsored by relatives or employers, are chosen in lotteries or qualify for asylum, officials said.