Back in November, Fresno County residents may remember a phone scam following the accidental shooting of Sheriff’s Deputy Rod Lucas. Residents were receiving calls asking for donations on the deputy’s behalf—even though the sheriff’s office said it would never solicit donations by phone. Consumer fraud like this isn’t new, but research suggests that some San Joaquin Valley communities are prime targets. New efforts from law enforcement aim to stem the tide.
Jenny Rodriguez knows immigration policy. She volunteers from her home in northwest Fresno to help immigrants navigate the system. She retired from her job as an immigration officer in September, but some days it still feels like she’s working.
“A lady calls me at 5:59 a.m., had a question about citizenship,” Rodriguez says, flipping through a notebook full of scribbles and sticky notes logging all of her conversations. “She wants to become a citizen, which is great. I'll take a citizenship call anytime, day or night, 24/7.”
But a call a few months ago took Rodriguez by surprise. A woman complained about a consultant who had promised to get her son a work permit. But the consultant disappeared—with $1,200 from the family. The consultant had gained her client’s trust by saying she was working with Rodriguez—who had never heard of her.
“I was dumbfounded, I'm very very seldom speechless,” Rodriguez says. “I was like, oh my God, I'm telling you señora, yo no tengo nada que ver con ella, I have nothing to do with this woman.”
This case is fraud. Over three decades, Rodriguez says she’s met hundreds of people defrauded by bogus lawyers and overreaching consultants. And now, she’s getting more backup from law enforcement. The Fresno County district attorney’s office has prioritized outreach and awareness about scams, and it’s expanding its efforts to prosecute fraudsters.
According to data on fraud complaints from the Federal Trade Commission, the San Joaquin Valley actually looks pretty good. Cities here have some of the lowest complaint rates of any of the country’s biggest metro areas. So does that mean there’s actually less fraud here? Thomas Dahdouh of the FTC says no. The biggest difference, he says, is our concentration of immigrants, which skews the numbers.
“Overall, our data shows that Latinos report fraud at a rate of 40 percent less than the general population, and many Latinos are new immigrants,” Dahdouh says.
An FTC report also found that these communities tend to be victimized far more often than whites.
“Hispanics were two-and-a-half times as likely to have experienced debt-related fraud than non-Hispanic whites,” says Dahdouh, “and we know that debt-related fraud is often the most pernicious and harmful because it’s affecting folks’ last dollars.”
Deepak Ahluwalia is an immigration lawyer in Fresno, and he sees these patterns in many of the diverse communities he works with. He says new immigrants naïve to our legal system are easy targets, and victims of fraud may be afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.
“What breaks my heart is that a lot of the clients that I've met have similar stories about attorneys taking their money, not doing work, or perhaps promising something that they're not eligible for,” he says.
In particular, some fraudsters submit asylum applications for their clients for more fees, even when the clients don’t qualify. For vulnerable people with tenuous legal standing, that can cost far more than money.
“That starts a whole slew of other legal problems,” says Ahluwalia. “We're talking being permanently banned from any immigration benefits because that is the law if you do file a frivolous asylum application.”
“The more that you find out about all these types of scams, the more you feel sometimes a defeatist attitude,” says Sabrina Ashjian, a deputy district attorney for Fresno County focusing on consumer fraud protection. “Can we fix all this, can we help all of these people, can we stop all of this from occurring.”
She says she hopes the DA’s office can. Her unit is expanding.
“It’s a really exciting time,” she says. “We have more deputy district attorneys as well as investigators that are pursuing these crimes, and with that we are able to go to a lot more community events and meet with community leaders and get a sense from the public of what’s taking place out there.”
When you see any kind of fraud, Ashjian says, report it. Call the DA’s office or the FTC, and they’ll direct the complaint to the agency best suited to investigate. If it’s criminal, the DA’s office can then work with victims to prosecute.
To Jenny Rodriguez, more attention from law enforcement is great news.
“I am ecstatic, I am over the moon with happiness over this issue because this is exactly what we need to be done,” she says.
And already, she’s found a way the DA’s office can improve its efforts: They can make their voicemail message available in more than English.