A woman accused of posing as an attorney so she could take advantage of immigrants was transferred to San Diego jail this week. She is scheduled to begin pre-trial hearings Dec. 3 on suspicion of fraud charges, according to a National City fraud detective.
Police in three counties credit NBC7 Investigates with the suspect’s arrest.
Micallela Aguilera, aka Michelle Christine Morales, was arrested in Huntington Beach in April 2015 following a series of NBC7 stories.
A detective told NBC7 that Morales has now been convicted on similar charges in Tulare County and Orange County. San Diego County’s “Who’s In Jail” website indicates Morales is facing two counts of unauthorized practice of law, two counts of grand theft and one count for allegedly writing a bad check.
South Bay resident A.J. Aguirre, an alleged victim, told NBC 7 her family gave the woman $3,000 because she offered them legal help and immigration services. Some of Aguirre’s family members are not legally allowed to live or work in the U.S.
"It's just horrible,” Aguirre said. “It's a horrible feeling because you lose your money, your savings, your trust. You feel ashamed because you think you did something wrong."
Morales is also wanted in Michigan on state fraud charges, according to Michigan state police.
News reports from WWMT-TV, a local TV station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, highlighted Aguilera's medical telemarketing company in July 2014 after 15 employees told the news station she hadn't paid them, but she had collected a $65 background check fee.
Individuals targeting immigrant families like Aguirre’s are rampant in California, according to state lawmakers and the Attorney General.
“This has been going on for decades,” State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-80th District) 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.”
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 because she said victims are reluctant to come forward.