President Obama's executive action on immigration last week created a pathway for millions of people in the country illegally to win work permits and live without fear of deportation.
It also created a new opening for scam artists.
With some questions remaining about how the plan will work, government officials, advocacy groups and bar associations are warning those in the country without legal status to consult only licensed attorneys and others authorized to provide legal advice on immigration matters.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is urging potential applicants to "beware of anyone who offers to help you submit an application" before the agency releases details on the process, which could extend temporary protections for up to 5 million people.
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris plans to issue a consumer alert Tuesday warning against "con artists emerging to prey on vulnerable consumers seeking help with immigration services."
There may be as many as 2,500 people unlawfully filing immigration paperwork or providing immigration advice in California, said Rigo Reyes, chief of investigations at Los Angeles County's Department of Consumer Affairs.
That number could grow, he said.
"Consumers risk losing not just their money but also their dream," Reyes said. "People are paying thousands of dollars for something that can eventually lead to deportation."
The problem — sometimes referred to as "notario fraud" — is not new.
Since passage of the 1986 amnesty bill, which opened the door to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country without authorization, scammers have offered to help unsuspecting people get work permits, file asylum claims and apply for other types of relief, often to the detriment of their cases, officials say.
Many claim to be licensed attorneys but are actually state-accredited immigration consultants, who are permitted to translate answers on immigration forms but not to suggest answers or tell clients which forms to file. Others are rogue public notaries who exploit that fact that the Spanish word for "notary" means lawyer in some Latin American countries.
In the United States, a notary is someone legally empowered to witness and certify documents and take affidavits and depositions.
Linda Lopez, who heads the Los Angeles Office of Immigrant Affairs, said reports of scams relating to Obama's recent action are already circulating. Her office is organizing workshops to educate immigrants on how to properly file for relief.
Several people have been prosecuted for notario fraud in recent months in Los Angeles County.
In May, a San Gabriel immigration consultant and one of his employees were sentenced to prison for filing fraudulent asylum applications on behalf of hundreds of Chinese immigrants. Haoren Ma, who operated a consulting business called New Arrival Immigration Service, was accused of telling clients that the easiest way to win asylum was by claiming to be Christians, even when the clients were Buddhists.
In June, an El Monte immigration consultant was charged with filing fraudulent green card applications on behalf of immigrants and charging them tens of thousands of dollars each.
Abuse is often underreported because many immigrants in the country without permission may be afraid to come forward, said David Beltran, a spokesman for Harris.
Daniel Sharp, legal director of the Central American Resource Center, a Los Angeles nonprofit that offers low-cost legal advice to immigrants, said his organization sees about 100 fraud victims each year.
Some paid money to notarios who promised to represent them in hearings with immigration officials and never showed up. Others paid for consultants to help them file asylum claims and ended up with deportation orders filed against them because the information in their claims was false.
"They're sharks," said Sharp, whose organization recently sued an L.A. man who was allegedly providing legal advice on a range of immigration matters without the necessary qualifications.
The American Immigration Lawyers Assn. recently issued public service announcements warning immigrants against those who "promise immediate action in order to steal your money."
Bill Anderson, vice president of legislative affairs at the National Notary Assn., said his organization is working to educate the public about what notaries can — and cannot — do.
"The overwhelming number of notaries are highly professional, law-abiding public servants," he said. "There are just a few bad apples out there."