Immigration services fraud affects the many immigrant communities who call Philadelphia home.

Immigration services fraud is more commonly referred to as “notario fraud.”  This comes from the term “notario publico,” which is particularly problematic because it creates a unique opportunity for deception.  The literal translation of “notario publico” is “notary public.”

While a notary public in the United States is authorized only to witness the signature of forms, a notary public in many Latin American and European countries refers to an individual who has received the equivalent of a law license and who is authorized to represent others before the government. However, it is important to note that immigration services fraud affects more than just Spanish speaking communities.

Because of language and cultural barriers or other differences, as well as the high demand for immigration related services, many newcomers to Philadelphia are at particularly high risk of these scams. An individual can fall victim to immigration assistance fraud when they seek immigration assistance services from a provider who is not qualified to give such immigration assistance, gives unauthorized legal assistance, or takes the victims money without providing any services at all.

In Philadelphia, the business of providing immigration assistance services is now regulated through an ordinance passed in 2014.  Any provider who is in the business of providing Immigration Assistance Service (IAS), which is any form of assistance for a fee or other compensation to any person on an immigration matter, must be in compliance with this law.

Philadelphians have rights as immigration service customers — and IAS providers have responsibilities.

Make sure you know your rights!

Immigration Service Customer Rights

As an immigration service customer in Philadelphia, you have the following rights:

  • To get a written contract in a language you understand that explains the specific services you are receiving and how much you will pay.
  • To cancel the contract at any time. If you cancel within three business days of signing, you can get all your money back.
  • To get receipts for every payment you make. You are entitled to a receipt every time you pay. Receipts must include date, amount paid, and list of provided services.
  • To get back all of your original documents.
  • To get copies of any paperwork prepared in your name or on your behalf. You are paying for a service and should be given copies of any paperwork the provider helps you with.
  • To get proof of insurance from the provider. You may request the provider’s credentials and proof they are holding a minimum of $50,000 in bond insurance.

Immigration Service Customer Tips & Red Flags

To protect yourself:

  • Do not ever lie on an immigration form. Don’t let anyone convince you that lying is a good idea. It’s not. Providing false information on a form can cause you to be permanently banned from getting any immigration benefits — or, it can lead to deportation.
  • Never sign blank immigration forms. An immigration application is under your name. Know what it says; signing a blank form puts you at risk.
  • Never pay someone for an immigration form. All official government forms are free online at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s website.
  • Be careful! If a provider is doing anything they shouldn’t be, stop using them.

Be aware of these red flags. If an Immigration Assistance Service (IAS) provider does any of these things, leave. Do not use an IAS provider if:

  • They try to give you legal advice. Legal advice includes telling you: what immigration form you should use; how you should answer a question on an immigration form; or, whether or not you qualify for a particular immigration benefit.
  • They say they can help you because they have “special connections.” If someone says they can get you an immigration benefit faster because “they know someone” at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or “Immigration,” do not use them.
  • They make guarantees or promises. An IAS provider cannot guarantee an outcome. Do not use an IAS if they promise you they will win your case.
  • They do something without your permission. Providers must have your permission before they send anything to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).
  • They charge you money for immigration forms or referring you to an attorney.
  • They threaten you, intimidate you, or tell you to lie.

Immigration Assistance Service (IAS) Provider Responsibilities

The City of Philadelphia regulates Immigration Assistance Service providers who are not: licensed attorneys; Board of Immigration Appeals accredited representatives; authorized federal or state government employees; elected officials, or City officials.

A notary public license does not authorize a person to give advice on immigration matters. In the United States, a notary public is not an attorney and they are not authorized to give legal advice.

Only two types of people can give legal advice: Attorneys or accredited representatives approved by the Board of Immigration Appeals at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The City of Philadelphia requires that all IAS providers register their businesses with the Department of Licensing and Inspections. All IAS providers must:

  • Publicly post fee schedules
  • Publicly post a sign stating that they are not attorneys
  • Hold an insurance bond of at least $50,000
  • Provide customers with a brochure, in the customer’s language, that lists their rights.

If Philadelphians have a complaint about an IAS provider, they should call Philly 311 by dialing 3-1-1 or 215-686-8686.

If you have any questions about your rights, please contact the Office of Immigrant Affairs. We are always available to serve you. For the latest news, be sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!