A woman accused of pretending to be an immigration attorney to collect thousands of dollars from her victims was arrested and charged with fraud, according to police.
Detective Steve Ward with Porterville Police told NBC 7 Micallela Aguilera Coleman was charged late Friday. She is currently being held without bail in Orange County.
NBC 7 first reported police were investigating Aguilera after an undocumented family reported her for falsely saying she was an immigration attorney and taking their money. A National City police detective said our NBC 7 Investigates stories, highlighting Coleman's activities in the South Bay, helped lead to her arrest.
Police estimate Aguilera has stolen thousands of dollars from at least a dozen victims across the state. A National City fraud detective said many of Aguilera's victims, like A.J. Aguirre, were afraid to come forward because as immigrants, they are not allowed to be in this country legally.
Aguirre said her family gave a woman, who they thought was an attorney, $3,000 for legal help and immigration services. She said they met the woman at her family's church and made the payments over a period of a couple weeks in February 2015.
After working with the woman for a few days, Aguirre said she began to mistrust her, so she secretly recorded the woman's Feb. 4 conversation with her family.
Two days later, Aguirre says the woman never showed up to an immigration appointment she said she would attend. That’s the same time Aguirre said the woman stopped responding to texts and calls.
On the recording, the woman can be heard telling Aguirre and her family how to respond to questions at an upcoming immigration hearing.
"They are going to ask you how much you paid me. Zero," the woman can be heard saying. "I have not charged you one penny. You paid immigration."
But Aguirre said that is not true. She said her family had already made several cash payments to the woman.
Aguilera is also heard on the recording saying she has collected tens of thousands of dollars from other clients.
NBC 7 Investigates checked state bar websites for licensed attorneys in all 50 states, but could not find Aguilera listed as an attorney in any of the databases under any variation of her name.
She has not returned multiple calls from NBC 7 and requests for comment.
Court records show Aguilera has been convicted in California for charges that include the unauthorized practice of law, possession of bad checks, and fraud.
For these most recent charges, Lt. Bob Boke with Garden Grove police department said the district attorneys in the different jurisdictions will have to decide who will prosecute first.
On her website, California Attorney General Kamala Harris lists things to watch out for when selecting help with the immigration process.
- Obtain a contract from the consultant or attorney.
- Verify their license and accreditation on the state bar’s website.
- Always retain original documents.
On the her website, Harris also points out that new immigration rules have not yet been implemented and that federal immigration authorities have not started accepting applications yet.
“Beware of anyone who offers to help you submit an application or a request for any of these actions before they are available,” the website advises.
State and local law enforcement officials told NBC 7 Investigates fraud cases involving immigration services are rarely prosecuted because alleged victims fear coming forward.
San Diego Deputy District Attorney Gina Darvas said her office has a memorandum of understanding between Homeland Security Investigations and the DA's office, protecting immigrants who report alleged crimes.
"When a victim comes forward to report this crime, if they are undocumented, they will not end up in deportation proceedings as a result," said Darvas.
Despite that understanding, Darvas says her office only prosecutes about four cases of immigration fraud a year.
Experts also said to avoid paying for services, like legal advice, up front.