For months, Brandelia Nunez’s dining room table has been buried underneath neat piles of receipts, phone logs and court records — evidence she believes will prove her family was scammed out of more than $10,000 while applying for immigration protections they weren’t even qualified to receive.

Even though Nunez, 43, is living in the country illegally, she contacted police and filed a complaint with the Illinois attorney general’s office, which is now pursuing a civil lawsuit on her behalf.

The fact that she formally complained makes her an anomaly. Advocates and lawyers say that people who are in the country illegally rarely report suspected consumer fraud, especially if they’re concerned about being penalized for their immigration status.

That can make them easy targets. Some scam artists are taking advantage of heightened fears in the immigrant community by promising immigration benefits they can’t deliver and offering legal services they aren’t qualified to provide at low costs — a crime commonly referred to as "notario fraud."

"There are few of us who dare to speak up. I’m not scared. I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m not a criminal. I have no reason to hide," Nunez said.

Immigration fraud comes in many forms but often includes people who illegally pose as lawyers, then demand excessive upfront fees for assistance, according to Karolyn Calbert, a managing attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center.

"We use the term ‘notary fraud’ just to refer to any non-immigration attorney providing legal advice," Calbert said. "And the term is really taken because of the translation of ‘notary’ in Spanish."

These people think we’re vulnerable because we’re undocumented. But they’re wrong. The resources are there, we just have to go out and find them. — Brandelia Nunez

The title "notario publico" in Latin American countries can mean "prestigious lawyer," which is very different from the meaning of "notary public" in the United States. Here, a notary public is limited to witnessing signatures, taking proof of ID and administering stamps. Some people take advantage of the different meaning in this country to defraud immigrants, she said.

In Illinois, it’s illegal for anyone who isn’t an attorney to give advice or provide any service that requires the use of a legal skill or knowledge — such as preparing legal documents.

Any person who offers immigration services in Illinois must be either a licensed lawyer or a not-for-profit entity recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals. They must also register as an Immigration Services Provider with the attorney general’s office.

The law also sets standards for the fees non-immigration attorneys can charge if, for example, they are helping someone fill out a form.

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"But still, we continue to see non-immigration attorneys come forward and offer immigration services and tell people that they can qualify for certain immigration benefits, and charge them fees — when in fact, they do not qualify for the relief that they’re seeking," Calbert said.

In April, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against Joliet resident Norma Bonilla alleging she defrauded Nunez and her family out of more than $10,000 for unlicensed immigration counseling.

The suit alleges that Bonilla operated a scam to get the family to pay her more than $1,000 to obtain immigration records that only cost $35 from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and charged an additional $1,000 for her efforts.

Nunez said she moved to Chicago after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 1996. She was hoping to obtain immigration benefits for her parents, who have illegally lived in the country since 1992.

She said she first contacted Bonilla in June 2015 on behalf of her parents, who did not want to be named in this story. Bonilla advised Nunez’s parents to apply for legal residency permits even though they were ineligible for them. The suit claims Bonilla added false information to the applications, overcharged for her services and submitted paperwork on the family’s behalf.

Bonilla is not a licensed attorney or employed by an immigration attorney or any agency authorized to provide immigration services, according to the state. She has never registered with the attorney general’s office, as required by state law.

Nunez’s dad was granted a work permit, but her mom remained in limbo for months until she received a voluntary deportation order from federal immigration authorities.

"I tried calling (Bonilla) to see what was going on with my mom’s application. She kept saying it would come but then she stopped answering my phone calls," Nunez said.

Nunez turned to the Frida Kahlo Community Organization, a nonprofit immigration advocacy organization based in Pilsen. She said she was horrified to learn that her parents weren’t eligible to live or work here legally. The advocacy group advised her mother to stop the application process and skip immigration court because she would surely be deported, Nunez said.

In December 2015, Nunez filed a police report and contacted the attorney general’s office, which is now seeking more than $50,000 in damages.

Bonilla has not responded to the lawsuit, according to the attorney general’s office, and did not respond to Tribune requests for comment.

"People want help. They hear they can get it fast and that they’re eligible for it," said Julie Pellerite, an immigration attorney with the Pilsen-based Resurrection Project. "They’re looking for safety and security anywhere they can get it."

Immigrants who have been misled sometimes spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on legal and application fees only to be denied. What’s more, their applications reveal their information to immigration officials — and the consequences can be very serious.

"I think everyone is on heightened alert right now," Pellerite said. "The community is so scared and they just want answers. But unfortunately the wrong help can really hurt people."

Reporting fraud

There is no central agency that collects immigration-related consumer fraud complaints. Several agencies, including the attorney general’s office, state’s attorney’s offices, the city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department and the Federal Trade Commission, collect and investigate immigration-related consumer complaints.

Immigrants are often wary of reporting crimes committed against them. In many instances, people who are living in the country illegally would rather cut their losses than turn to a government agency for assistance.

As a result, most complaints come from immigration attorneys, judges and immigration organizations — not the victims themselves.

The attorney general’s office has received 23 complaints so far in 2017, compared with 32 complaints in 2016, according to spokeswoman Eileen Boyce.

The Federal Trade Commission has collected at least 18 immigration-related consumer complaints in Illinois through May, compared with 25 in 2016, according to Joannie Wei, an attorney with the commission.

Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, said the agency has received at least 16 immigration-related consumer fraud complaints this year, compared with 9 in 2016.

He said people sometimes take advantage of language barriers to prey on those who live in the country illegally.

"Your caller ID will say something like ‘IRS’ — scam artists have the ability to change the caller ID through a program," he said. "They’ll call you and threaten you and say you owe back taxes to the IRS — if you don’t pay you’ll go to jail and get deported. It’s fake, obviously, but they want you to pay up."

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx established an anonymous immigration fraud hotline in February. The hotline had received at least 13 complaints as of May 1, according to spokeswoman Tandra Simonton. As a result, four people are being investigated and another three were turned over to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission because they are licensed attorneys.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department encourages people to report scams to the Federal Trade Commission and local agencies. In Illinois, they recommend contacting the attorney general’s office and the Illinois State Bar Association’s Task Force on Unauthorized Practice of Law.

"We get at least one of these complaints per meeting — and it’s not limited to the Hispanic community or Asian community. It really spans the scope of the immigrant population," Task Force chairman Timothy Moran said.

Moran said some notarios exaggerate their legal knowledge and market themselves as being cheaper and easier to work with than a licensed attorney.

"By the time they come to us the allegation is (the victim) paid so and so amount of money and they did nothing. Or ‘They’re not returning my calls,’" he said.

"Obviously, they’re scared, they probably have limited income," Moran said. "To think that there are people out there who are preying on them and taking money up front and promising things that they can never deliver is very troubling."

The Task Force can review allegations and forward complaints to local agencies, but its power to police such complaints is limited to sending cease and desist letters, Moran said.

The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission has the authority to bring actions against licensed attorneys and people who are practicing law without a license. In 2016, it investigated 116 complaints about attorneys from the immigration field, according to deputy administrator James Grogin.

Advocates recommend that people seeking help check on the qualifications before hiring anyone, as there are plenty of legitimate services.

Samuel Flores, 60, of Little Village, has worked as a notary public for more than 20 years. His business, Servicios Flores, is certified with the attorney general’s office as an accredited Immigration Services Provider.

Flores is legally allowed to help people fill out immigration forms, like work permit applications and petitions for family members abroad. He said he encourages clients to consult with an attorney before seeking help from a notary public.

"When you do notary services, you just pay less because you’re only paying for filling out the forms. A notary is not authorized to give you advice," he said. "We are not attorneys, but we can recommend you an attorney."

In Back of the Yards, Nunez and her husband, J. Adan Acosta, 42, are still in the process of applying for legal residency. They are hopeful that "justice will be served" in their legal case, and that more victims will come forward to report immigration scams.

"These people think we’re vulnerable because we’re undocumented," Nunez said. "But they’re wrong. The resources are there, we just have to go out and find them."

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