When A.J. Aguirre first met a woman billing herself as an attorney and asking her family for thousands of dollars to help with their immigration process, she said she immediately sensed that something was wrong.
Aguirre, who lives with her boyfriend and their 3-year-old daughter in South County, said she set those fears aside by concentrating on how much a legal status would help her family.
“We wanted this so much that we were willing to just pray to God that this is actually real,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre and her boyfriend borrowed money from friends and family, worked extra hours, cobbled together their savings and paid the woman more than $3,000 in cash.
“She took advantage that we were so desperate for this,” Aguirre said. “We all feel devastated, fooled, heartbroken. It’s just a horrible, horrible feeling because you lose your money, your savings, your trust.”
When Aguirre’s family started asking for proof of the woman’s work, the alleged attorney stopped responding to texts and calls.
“Some of that money was going to be for my daughter’s birthday. She’s going to turn 3-years old,” Aguirre said, fighting back tears. “That money went down the drain.”
Confusion over President Barack Obama’s immigration executive programs is helping scam artists target immigrant families like Aguirre's, according to state lawmakers and the Attorney General.
Lawmakers like State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-80th District) are trying to address the problem, but tracking down just how many victims are out there is difficult because they rarely come forward to report the fraud to authorities.
State officials do know that Aguirre’s family is not alone.
“This has been going on for decades,” Gonzalez said. “We have a bunch of scammers out there who know this is a vulnerable population, who are not likely to report it to the authorities, and the scam artists can simply take their money and run.”
NBC7 tried all day to contact the woman who Aguirre says took her family’s money. The name the woman gave the family is not listed on the state bar’s website, and phone calls requesting comment went unreturned.
Through public records, we did find more than half a dozen names the woman has gone by over the years, and we plan to report more details once we can verify her true identity.
In the meantime, Gonzalez is pushing for legislation that would require lawyers and consultants offering services under pending federal immigration reform to follow common sense business practices.
“It’s happening a lot and the problem is we don’t always hear about it,” said Gonzalez, who represents the district where Aguirre’s family lives and works. “Immigrants are prime targets for fraud because the people who are committing the fraud know their victims are in jeopardy even by just being here.”
On her website, California Attorney General Kamala Harris lists things to watch out for when selecting help with the immigration process. Those include getting a contract from the consultant or attorney, verifying their license and accreditation on the state bar’s website and always retaining your original documents, according to the website.
Harris also warns on her website that new immigration rules have not yet been implemented and that federal immigration authorities are not 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.
“I think it’s a red flag anytime an attorney asks for cash and if they ask for it upfront and there’s no contract and they haven’t give you specified expectations,” said Gonzalez. “There should be a schedule of things you’re getting with your payments, and that’s the kind of thing people need to look out for.”
Her proposed legislation, AB60, would help provide fraud victims a safer way to report wrongdoing without risking legal action and/or deportation. For now, her office directs people to the state bar to file complaints.
“Now you have a dynamic going on where people are getting braver and braver, so I think that you’ll find more people who will stand up for themselves,” she said.
Aguirre was first reluctant to talk on-camera about this all-too-common scam, not just because of legal concerns.
“You feel ashamed because you think you did something wrong,” she said.
She decided to speak out Monday to warn others in her community.
“Because these kind of people need to be locked up. They shouldn’t be doing this to us,” she said. “Because it should stop... It should stop completely. Not only that, but she didn’t steal the money from me, she stole the money from my child.”