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Lost in Translation

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Washington, D.C.To a Spanish speaker, a notorio publico and a notorio may read and sound like the same thing, but in fact there is a world of difference. Desperate for help and short on cash, many immigrants confuse the two terms--they think they are getting a low-cost lawyer when in fact they have found their way into the office of a notary public. Unfortunately, some notorios are often only too willing to take advantage of the confusion and will charge significant amounts of money for filling out a few forms, often incorrectly.

Notorio FraudAccording to the American Barr Association (ABA) "notorio fraud" is a widespread and prevalent problem in the US. A 2004 article in the Harvard Law Review reported that one out of five Latinos had used the services of a notorio for legal help, sometimes with disastrous results.

"Most of these notorios do not have the training required to assist with immigration applications, but they do it anyway," says attorney Dan O'Connor, a Washington D.C. lawyer who was recently asked to speak at the national meeting of the ABA in Chicago.

"In some instances notorios think they can do a decent job and in other instances they know they don't have the skill or knowledge," says O'Connor from the Bryan Cave firm. "It is very reckless conduct and egregious behaviour."

After paying thousands of dollars for the inadequate services of a notorio, immigrants who once perhaps had a chance at naturalization can find themselves in trouble with the US government for falsifying documents and on the list for deportation. And once deported, their chance of making another application is seriously damaged and any hope of recovering the money spent on a notorio is next to zero.

"It is really a pretty ugly process that can happen to people when you have unscrupulous notorios preying on this misunderstanding," adds O'Connor.

Although O'Connor is primarily a product liability lawyer at the Bryan Cave firm where he focuses on consumer protection law, O'Connor made a decision to do some pro bono work for immigrants victimized by notorios. "These people were cheated out of thousands of dollars and an opportunity to become US citizens," he says.

Using state consumer protection statutes, the firm likely changed the course of history for the two people duped by notorios in Maryland and Virginia. "We successfully brought forward two cases and in both we were able to recover significant sums of money for the victim and we were also able to get injunctions to prevent the particular notorios involved from giving legal advice to other immigration applicants."

Don O'Connor is an associate with the Bryan Cave firm in Washington D.C.

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