An immigration consultant and her business associate were arrested Thursday morning on a federal indictment that accuses them of filing fraudulent green card applications on behalf of immigrants.
Claudia Arreola, 35, of El Monte, and Leticia Gutierrez, 35, of Pico Rivera, were charged in a six-count indictment that a federal grand jury returned on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Arreola and Gutierrez are free on a $25,000 bond each.
Federal prosecutors say the women posed as "notarios" in the Los Angeles area in order to dupe victims into thinking they could help legalize their residency status.
The Spanish word for "notary" can mean lawyer in some Latin American countries. In others, the title denotes someone who holds public office. In the U.S., however, a notary is simply someone legally empowered to witness and certify documents and take affidavits and depositions.
"Fraud scams run by so-called notarios threaten the integrity of the immigration process and offer false hope to desperate people," U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. said in a statement. "The two women in this case victimized immigrants for years by giving the false impression that they could fix immigration problems."
According to the indictment, Arreola and Gutierrez allegedly filed immigration forms to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services between 2006 and 2008 on behalf of the six immigrant victims.
The suspects falsely claimed that the victims were married to U.S. citizens and had entered the country legally, according to the indictment.
The victims were told the services would cost about $7,000, but ultimately they were charged more than $20,000 throughout the course of the scam, federal prosecutors said.
Some of the victims took out loans against credit cards, family and friends to pay for the costs.
The suspects then allegedly used deportation to threaten victims who sought a refund when they didn't receive green cards, officials said.
"Tragically, as is often true in such scams, at least some of the victims in this case could have obtained green cards legally," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles.
The probe started in 2011, when the immigration service alerted the Department of Homeland Security about suspicious applications.
Prior to the investigation, Arreola and Gutierrez had been named in a 2003 lawsuit by the California attorney general for allegedly engaging in an illegal scheme to provide immigration services in the state.
As part of a settlement agreement, the pair promised not to engage in illegal immigration consulting services in violation of California law and not to promise certain benefits or results in immigration cases, federal prosecutors said.
But in 2006, the pair began operating California Immigration Services, authorities said.
Federal officials say the scam may be responsible for dozens of fraudulent benefit applications.
Federal authorities believe there are additional victims who have not been identified. The victims, they say, may contact the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs at (800) 593-8222.