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Immigrants can be easy prey for scams


It's easy enough to get taken for a ride in one's own language. But find a mark who can't speak English, doesn't understand the system and is afraid to go to the police even after he realizes he's been jobbed, and a con artist can pretty much do whatever he wants. That's why, authorities say, Atlanta's burgeoning number of Spanish-speaking immigrants are being targeted more and more often by scams. Local police and advocates for immigrants say they've heard of people offering to process papers for citizenship or for work permits, taking the cash for shoddy work or even no work at all. Customers and employees have complained about their cars being towed without warning from a Sandy Springs shopping center that caters largely to Hispanics, charging $300 for the tow and another $40 for each day the car is in storage.

In some cases, Hispanic workers will finish a week laboring on a construction site only to have the foreman refuse to pay them, threatening the workers with a call to the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they complain.

"They don't know the system, they don't know the language, and that makes them an easy target," says Jeffrey Tapia, associate director of metro Atlanta's Latin American Association. "It happens all the time."

The cost can be high. Some immigrants have paid $1,500 or $2,000 to someone who promises to have connections to the INS and can prepare and process their citizenship papers for them. It's not uncommon in some Latin American countries to use a middleman to grease the wheels of government, so the offer doesn't always seem suspicious, says Fulton County Police Det. Greg Pitts.

Some operators take the money and run, and in fact, sometimes those victims are better off. That's because someone who files papers poorly can actually make the situation worse for an immigrant, who might not have ever caught the attention of the feds otherwise, says Irmina Owens, the staff attorney for the Latin American Association.

Many of the scams succeed on the premise that the victims are nervous about calling authorities after something goes wrong. After all, people who are here illegally are less likely to want the police involved. In addition, the victims are often aware that the steps they were taking to gain residency may not have been entirely on the up-and-up, says Smyrna police Sgt. Keith Zgonc.

That allows the operators to keep working the same scam in the same area longer than they might be able to otherwise, Zgonc says.

"If they're worried that they were doing something illegal, they're not going to report it," he says. "I think there is a lot more of this going on than is being reported to us."

Others prey on the desperation some immigrants feel to stay in the United States -- and their often incomplete understanding of how the process works. Some counterfeiters are able to pawn off substandard fake IDs to people unaware that the card isn't even purporting to serve as legal identification, says Pitts, a fraud investigator.

"These people are just trying to find a way to stay in this country," Pitts says. "They just don't know how everything works."

Other cases simply take advantage of the immigrants' lack of standing in society. There have been incidents in which immigrants were quoted interest rates above 30 percent on car purchases, or charged three to four times the going rate for auto insurance policies that didn't even meet the state's minimum standard, Pitts says.

And in 1999, the Latin American Association heard from more than 350 workers who said that their employers refused to give them their paychecks at the end of the week, Tapia says.

The association, headquartered on Buford Highway, does what it can to help immigrants victimized by scams and to prevent others from being taken. The staff keeps a list of people they believe are taking advantage of immigrants, and if it appears someone who is not an attorney is offering legal advice, the association can start the ball rolling on a cease-and-desist order against them.

In addition, the association tries to warn people about trusting their immigration work to someone who knocks on their apartment door, using messages in Spanish-language newspapers and on Spanish radio stations, Tapia says.

And, Det. Pitts recommends that immigrants try to find someone they trust -- a family member, a friend, someone who has gone through the process of moving to America before them -- to guide them through everything, helping to steer them away from making the same mistakes.

"There are people who don't speak the language, who don't know how things are done, and who don't want to call the police afterward," he says. "What chance do they have?"

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