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Scammers prey on fearful immigrants, officials say

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, along with advocates,

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, along with advocates, announced how immigrants could avoid becoming victims of scams at a news conference in his lower Manhattan office on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Fear of deportation in New York’s immigrant communities has triggered an uptick in scams by phony lawyers and telephone solicitors posing as federal immigration officials who promise people legal status for money, authorities said.

New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, standing with a group of immigration advocates Tuesday in his Manhattan office, urged New Yorkers to report scams to his office without having to reveal their legal status.

“Immigrants are in a time of crisis,” said Schneiderman, whose office processes complaints and prosecutes immigration fraud. “There is an intense fear all over the country and here in New York. People are frightened and desperate and these are the people who are being targeted . . . Do not believe in false promises and turn over your hard earned money.”

The attorney general’s office has identified a fake 800 telephone number that resembles an actual immigration office number. The scammers ask for as much as $1,500 in fees and personal financial documents while pressuring people for “immediate payment” or face deportation, the state attorney general said.

Schneiderman warned people not to sign blank forms, documents they do not understand or turn over personal financial papers. Scammers are preying on their own immigrant communities, he said. “They are even going to local churches to develop a trustworthy bond.”

On Long Island, Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center, said immigration fraud was being committed by community members who were recruited by law offices to solicit immigrants for “a kickback.” He said scammers were playing into the fears of Long Islanders brought here illegally as children by their parents but who can remain in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA immigrants have work permits but must renew their status every two years.

“There is a fear out there from DACA immigrants that their work permits will be taken away and that they will be deported when Trump gets into office,” Young said. His offices in Brentwood and Hempstead have received reports that scammers have asked up to $20,000 to apply for legal status.

“They are desperate and they want to maintain their work permits,” Young said.

Camille Mackler, director of the Manhattan-based Legal Initiatives at the New York Immigrant Coalition, said free or low-cost legal services for immigrants in Suffolk County was limited, making it fertile ground for scammers.

“There is less legal services and higher fraud making Suffolk County vulnerable to scams,” Mackler said. Suffolk residents can file a complaint with the state attorney general’s office in Hauppauge. In Nassau County, police are trained to take complaints, and its district attorney’s office prosecutes immigration fraud, Mackler said.

To report fraud or get answers to immigration questions, people may call the New York State attorney general’s office at 800-566-7636.

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