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Scams Target Spanish Speakers, Immigrants

Criminals try to exploit language barriers and fear of authorities for their own gain


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Last year, C.G., a 49-year-old Honduran immigrant living in Maryland, searched online and found a business that claimed it could help him obtain a green card, the coveted document that would allow him to live and work permanently in the U.S.  

“The company told me that they were going to help me fix my status in this country,” C.G. (who agreed to an interview on condition that his name not be used) explained through an interpreter.  

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He said that in a video call on a messaging app, “they actually show you the green card, and they give you this promise that they’re going to give you your papers.” C.G. agreed to send them $10,000 by wire transfer, and the company provided him with a tracking number that he could use to follow the status of his application.

The company soon connected him with a man claiming to be an immigration officer, who told C.G. that his application had been approved. But there turned out to be a catch: The original $10,000 was just the application fee. To get the document, C.G. would have to pay the company another $15,000.

“I thought this was kind of fishy,” C.G. said. “It sounded like a scam.”

It was. He never received his green card or his $10,000 back.

Vulnerable communities

Across the U.S., countless other members of ethnic communities are targeted by scammers, who seek to exploit potential victims’ lack of English fluency or unfamiliarity with how government agencies and businesses operate in this country. Some, like the company that took C.G.’s money, promise to provide shortcuts through immigration bureaucracy, in return for hefty fees, while others try to lure community members into cryptocurrency-related or other investment scams

Criminals will also pose as government officials  and threaten to have immigrants arrested and deported for imaginary crimes unless they pay up.

It's difficult to tell how many people from certain ethnic groups are being victimized by scams. Many such crimes go unreported, due to language barriers or victims’ reluctance to seek help from authorities or consumer watchdogs, explains Better Business Bureau (BBB) spokesman Josh Planos.

“When we do receive reports, they’re typically from family members who have more English and can translate,” he says. And scams in general are thought to be vastly underreported, due to victims’ feelings of shame and belief that authorities won't be able to help.

Juan Manuel Pedroza, an assistant professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Cruz, published a recent study on more than 2,300 immigration-related scams that were reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). He found that noncitizens were most likely to report scams in areas of the country where they had a support network of immigration law attorneys and advocacy groups, and felt welcomed by government policies.

“You're more likely to see people coming forward if they feel like their voice will be heard,” Padroza explains.

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These are some of the most common scams that target ethnic communities:

Immigration scams

Planos says BBB has seen a recent uptick in immigration-related scams such as the one described by C.G.

Immigration “is a very complicated process,” he notes. “Anytime anybody presents themselves as having a shortcut or being able to expedite the process, that’s going to be very enticing.”

Scammers find targets a variety of ways: They might post signs in neighborhoods, buy ads on social media sites, or use geotargeting, where they find and focus on areas with a higher proportion of immigrants.

But some resort to old-school, face-to-face fraud. Ryann Gerber Jorban, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County, California, spends much of her time cracking down on self-styled “notarios,” who set up shop in Latino communities and offer to help with immigration paperwork. In many Central American countries, a notario is an official who helps with issues such as house sales, marriages and adoptions.

“We don’t have the equivalent here in the States,” Jorban says, “but [criminals] use that term, and people who come from other countries don’t know that it’s not an American thing.”

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And sometimes scammers are members of the community they’re targeting, she adds, which means they're able to use that cultural knowledge to gain victims' trust.

Self-described notarios typically take immigrants’ money, then either do nothing — figuring that because the immigration process takes a long time, their victims may not realize for years that they’ve been defrauded — or file incorrect paperwork that may leave the client in an even worse position than before.

Jordan says some victims have even ended up with “an arrest warrant for their deportation.”

Asian immigrants can also be targeted. In September 2022, an Arizona man was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison and ordered to pay $852,355 in restitution after being convicted of charges related to a scheme in which he convinced his clients — mostly Asian immigrants — that they could obtain citizenship by being adopted as adults by U.S. citizens.

Investment fraud

Scammers also sometimes target ethnic communities with investment scams.

In Southern California, for example, a stockbroker convinced more than 100 members of a Latino community, many of whom were of limited means, to invest $3.2 million with him over a seven-year period in what they thought were short-term construction loans with a high rate of return. One woman invested her entire life savings of $20,000. The stockbroker won their trust through “community contacts and word of mouth,” federal prosecutor Charles E. Pell explains in an email.

The stockbroker showed the investors statements falsely suggesting that their money was growing. In reality, the stockbroker spent their cash on his own personal expenses, including an Alfa Romeo sports car. In September 2022, the crook pleaded guilty to securities fraud and other charges, and was sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison.

Ethnic communities also have been targeted by cryptocurrency investment scams. In September 2022, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed an emergency action to stop what it alleged was a crypto pyramid scheme aimed at Latinos. According to the SEC, the defendants in the case raised more than $12 million from more than 5,000 investors.

Government impersonators

Other criminals menace members of the Chinese community in the U.S. with threatening robocalls. According to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), a caller will often impersonate a Chinese consulate staff member, who says a package addressed to the immigrant is being held at the consulate, and that it’s linked to a criminal investigation. The phony official then offers the target a chance to resolve the matter by making a payment.

Frightened by the prospect of being sent home, targets often pay. In one recent case, a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign received a call from someone claiming to be from the Chinese Embassy, who threatened to have the student deported for connections to international crime. The student wired $90,000 to avoid the phony charges.

How to protect yourself from these scams

  • Don’t pay anyone for immigration forms. These can be obtained for free from the government, according to Consumer.gov.
  • Be skeptical of big promises. Scammers typically make outlandish promises, such as assuring you that there’s a 100 percent certainty that your visa or green card application will be approved quickly. As the FTC notes in this warning, “There’s no special access. Nobody can guarantee they’ll get you a Green Card or citizenship. Nobody can get you on a special list or get early access to any secret process. Those are lies that will cost you money and, very likely, your chance to immigrate lawfully.”
  • Watch out for pressure tactics. Scammers who prey upon ethnic communities typically flood their targets with communications in an effort to confuse them, and use high-pressure sales tactics, including threatening to turn them in to authorities if they try to back out of a transaction. If it doesn’t feel right to you, say no.
  • Don’t get family or friends involved. Criminals who are peddling immigration scams or dubious investments often will try to get you to recruit your family members, friends and neighbors as additional targets, Planos says. That’s a definite red flag. (You shouldn’t get involved, either, of course.)
  • Disconnect phone scammers. The FCC advises that the best response to anyone claiming to be from the Chinese government is to immediately hang up. If you’re worried that a call might be authentic, contact the nearest Chinese consulate, using a number from a phone directory or an official website.

Where to report scams

If you spot or have been a victim of a scam, report it to your local police and to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at reportfraud.ftc.gov. The more information they have, the better they can identify patterns, link cases and ultimately catch the criminals. ​

You can also report investment scams to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, is a free resource. Call to speak with trained fraud specialists who provide support and guidance on what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also offers online group support sessions.​ 

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP FraudWatch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.