Tuesday, December 7, 2010

DC Attorney leading the charge to protect immigrants from consumer fraud

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I first interviewed attorney David Zetoony of the Bryan Cave law firm about a month ago for a news story on Catholic Charities' involvement in combating notario fraud. He's been involved with Catholic Charities since 2008, working to prevent the widespread misrepresentation of legal services by notarios that has swept through the immigrant communities we serve.

David credits his familiarity with notario fraud to a 2008 report he heard on the local NPR station WAMU 88.5 that highlighted this ballooning problem in the United States. However, he credits one of his own relative's experience leaving home and coming to America for giving him the sustained passion to fight for immigrants' rights.

"Anyone with the right resources can become successful," David said. "After all, we were all immigrants once." Syrian by birth, and without even a shred of knowledge about American culture or the English language, David's grandfather boarded a boat at the age of 16 to join his uncle in Nevada. But the boat he boarded was bound for Cuba—4,000 miles from his uncle’s home in Nevada. As if the mistake weren’t already bad enough, he endured yet another trial when he was stricken with malaria during the voyage. Sick and completely disoriented, he arrived in Havana. He was eventually able to reach his uncle, who made the trip from Nevada to Cuba to rescue David’s grandfather.

The experience of David's grandfather serves as a perfect allegory in this instance, mirroring what so many immigrants experience themselves upon arriving in the United States. They often arrive alone, with little knowledge of language or legal processes, and they seek only a helping hand.

Unfortunately, the help that notarios offer immigrants is not at all what they expect to receive. That's because the title “notario” is understood by native Spanish speakers as indicating that a person has the same, or more, legal education than a lawyer in the United States. In fact, most notarios don't have any legal education or expertise whatsoever.

Many notarios charge their clients outrageous fees. Some simply take this money without doing any work. Others select and file forms and petitions on behalf of their clients, but due to their lack of training and expertise, fail to provide their clients with accurate advice concerning what should or should not be filed. Often, notarios file forms incorrectly or with inaccurate information, and the repercussions can be dire.

"Notarios can single-handedly end the American dream for some families. They think they're paying for a legitimate service, but then they have to endure possible legal ramifications and extreme embarrassment," David said. These are also two of the reasons why immigrant families often don't come forward when they think they've been defrauded. It's because they're embarrassed, and they're scared to report any sort of crime to the proper authorities for fear of being removed from the country.

Unfortunately, cases against notarios seldom make it to court, precisely because so few defrauded immigrants come forward. David is currently awaiting a response from a petition lodged with the Federal Trade Commission regarding fraudulent notario operations. He hopes that the government agency will issue guidance for how to deal with notarios, as well as advice for Spanish-speaking immigrants to help prevent fraud and deception. He also hopes the agency will bring law enforcement cases against notarios who victimize immigrants in the future.

For the moment, the network of local Catholic Charities organizations across the country makes up the largest team of players working to provide help and hope to immigrants who may be dealing with tough legal issues. We all, however, rely on pro bono assistance from passionate attorneys like David to help protect these immigrants, and we'd like to tip our hat to him. It is a striking testimony of the American Dream that the grandson of a Syrian immigrant who barely survived his journey to America could grow up to be a powerful advocate for other immigrants.

You can help, too. To learn more about what Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington is doing to help prevent notario fraud in the DC, Maryland, Virginia region, call: 202-772-4351.

If you are aware of notario fraud, please report it to the Federal Trade Commission, 1-877-382-4357, or to the ABA’s Fightnotariofraud.org project.

Read more about notario fraud and David Zetoony's work: The Hometown Annapolis; Southern Maryland Online; City Biz List Baltimore

Additional resources: ABA, Fight Notario Fraud.org, Bryan Cave, Immigration Legal Services

Above: Catholic Charities staff attorneys Debi Sanders (left) and Jeanne Atkinson join David Zetoony at the Bryan Cave Law Firm in Washington, DC.