Maria Magdalena Juarez picked up the phone. A voice on the other end told her that she was being sued for an uncollected debt of $4,000.
Maria was sure she didn’t owe that money, but the caller said he was a court official. Several harassing calls followed, in which the man threatened to seize her property and send her to jail if she didn’t pay up. Scared, Juarez purchased a money order but told her son about it before sending it off. He did an online search and told her it could be a possible scam.
“Whenever consumers face calls from someone insistent on seeking a payment of money, they need to be very suspicious, they should pause and consult someone in their family or friends,” said Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), who shared Maria’s story during a Feb. 11 news briefing about Scams and Frauds targeting ethnic communities, organized by New America Media.
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“If they are victims of fraud, they should always come to the FTC and file a complaint (by phone or online), so we can collect information and potentially start a law enforcement action and be able to recover money for the affected consumers,” she said.
The FTC is an independent agency with a dual mission: to protect consumers from “unlawful, unfair and deceptive practices,” and to promote competition. Attorneys and lawyers working in the consumer protection area have found that fraudulent practices affect mostly low-income, racial and ethnic communities.
“Language can be a significant barrier and that is why ‘affinity scams’ happen a lot within our communities,” explained Ted Mermin, executive director with the Public Good Law Center in Berkeley. “People who knock on your door and speak to you in your own language and offer you a deal that is too good to be true…You sign up for a service that you never receive, or agree about paying $49.99 a month without understanding, and that happens because you are members of the same community and they are abusing this trust.”
Mermin stressed that “we are all consumers” who can find free help in different legal clinics in community centers, and through broader coalitions like the California Consumer Justice Coalition, that focuses primarily in issues related to consumer debt.
According to a 2014 Urban Institute study, 35 percent of adults with a credit file are ostensibly in debt. Not surprisingly, this is the area in which consumer protection agencies, including the state Attorney General’s Office, receive more complaints. The office sponsored the “Fair Debt Buying Practices Act” that went into effect on January 2014. Among other things, the Act requires “all settlement agreements between a debt buyer and a debtor to be documented in open court.”
The Promise of a Green Card
“Some of these same predatory businesses engaging in unfair and deceptive debt collection practices, threaten to report individuals to ICE or INS or other immigration authorities,” said Nicklas Akers, Senior Assistant Attorney General of the Consumer Law Section of the California Department of Justice.
Akers said it was important that victims file a complaint with his office, even anonymously if they so choose. “We will not report anybody to the authorities and we help everybody regardless of their immigration status,” he said.
Akers pointed out that there was an “explosion” of immigration-related scams, where individuals are promised a green card. In many instances, the scammers take the money up front, and then threaten to report the victims to immigration authorities unless they give more money.
Federal agencies have noticed an increase in notarios and immigration scams every time there are changes in immigration law, according to Mermin. They warn in handouts that notarios are not lawyers, and therefore not qualified to offer legal help. Consumers should rely on immigration forms which are free and available in different languages.
Contracts Without Translation
In California, there is a piece of legislation helpful for ethnic communities: the Foreign Language Translation of Consumer Contracts. Under it, a person in a trade or business, who negotiates a contract primarily in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog/Filipino, Vietnamese, or Korean, “must give the consumer a written translation of the proposed contract in the language of the negotiations.”
“A common type of scam is buying a car. The negotiations are done in Chinese. They push the client to sign the contract very fast and you don’t have time to review it. So a lot of times they slip in extra services you didn’t agree to, or set a higher price for the car than the (amount) you agreed to pay,” said Rose Chan, consumer advice coordinator at Consumer Action.
Steven Shi, who migrated from China 20 years ago, was a victim of such fraud. Last October, he went to a Toyota dealer in Sunnyvale, Calif., intending to purchase a Prius. The sales representative persuaded him to buy the car by paying in installments, and to purchase a $1,750 dollar extended warranty that would include an “anti-theft system on my new car.” However, Steve was later charged an additional $800 for that “gift.” When he complained, the dealer offered to return the money in five years.
“I asked help from the Sunnyvale Consumer Council, and they helped me to recover the money… It was an unpleasant experience,” Shi said.
One-Hundred Percent Guaranteed
False advertising is another area where federal authorities are constantly cracking down on. They include weight-loss miracle products to get rich quickly home-based job opportunities.
“We recently filed a lawsuit against DeVry University regarding a statement they made that was not accurate: that 90% of their graduates actively seeking employment land a job in their field within six months of graduation,” said Thomas Dahdouh, FTC western regional director, who showed a commercial of DeVry University in Spanish during the media briefing.
“We challenged this ad as deceptive. We asserted in federal court that they don’t have the data to back up that claim. Our aim is to get money back to students who were harmed by that deception,” Thomas said.
Occasionally, for-profit schools as well as high school diploma mills, market their services to immigrant communities, making false promises on high jobs placement, transferability of credits or low costs of enrollment.
“There are red flags like schools putting pressure to enroll before you have a chance to research the program or confirm the financial aid. The students have the right to cancel the contract but its particular hard for foreign students who don’t know about this,” said Dahdouh.
Home Loan Scams
People in communities of color in the Bay Area, who have longed to become homeowners or were trying to modify their existing loans, were targeted by lending institutions.
“We have almost no homeowners now in our database who were not approached, or who didn’t pay a scammer,” said Maeve Elise Brown, executive director of Housing and Economics Right Advocates (HERA). “Despite the fact that we have a state law that prohibits the advance collection of fees for loan modification work, people are still getting asked to pay money up front for loan modification. The work does not actually get performed.”
HERA filed six complaints on behalf of six different Latino families who were approached by an organization called Home Loan Auditors, with the promise to save their homes and lower their mortgage payments.
“All of them were approached in Spanish, but received documents in English that forced them to pay (up) thousands of dollars to save their most precious asset.
“We are going to federal court charging discrimination, because one of the key aspects why people are ripped off is based on who they are. They are selected as seniors, people of color, women and immigrants. That is discrimination.”
In spite of the big effort of authorities and advocates to punish the scammers, oftentimes individuals or institutions are not traceable and simply disappear with the victims’ money.
“It could be a challenge to try to get money back in the hands of the consumer,” said FTC Chairwoman Ramirez. “That is why prevention is so key.”