OVER THE PAST two years, about 40 Polish immigrants in Philadelphia went to see lawyer Ricky Palladino with a similar problem.
Hoping to get permanent residency here, they had traveled to New York to meet the president of an agency, a Polish man who had a picture of himself with Pope John Paul II prominently displayed behind his desk.
"They feel safe with someone who speaks their language," said Palladino, whose office is in Center City. "This individual was giving them hope."
Palladino said the man was falsely telling the immigrants that he was a lawyer and that they were eligible for green cards based on work employment when in fact they were not eligible.
After the immigrants paid the agency thousands of dollars, their applications were denied. On top of that, they were put into deportation proceedings, Palladino said, and the agency president fled to Poland.
Nonlawyers without credentials who promise to help people get immigration benefits are involved in what federal authorities call the unlawful practice of immigration law.
In June 2011, the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission unveiled a multiagency effort to combat such immigration scams.
Tomorrow, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will conduct a public forum, "Combating Immigration Scams and the Unlawful Practice of Immigration Law," from 1 to 3 p.m. at its office, 30 N. 41st St., near Market, in University City.
The event will feature speakers from USCIS, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, as well as a Villanova University law student who started a project to help victims of notario publico frauds.
"Immigration is complicated, and you need the right help when filing for a visa, applying for a green card," said Carla Pendino, community-relations officer for the USCIS Philadelphia district office and a speaker on the panel.
Pendino said one of the newer scams in Philadelphia is one in which a caller tells people they will be deported if they don't wire-transfer money. The scammer has falsely set up a caller ID that identifies the call as coming from USCIS, Pendino said.
She advises people to be cautious of some local stores that offer an array of services to immigrants.
"If someone out there is saying they're an expert in tax, immigration and something else, I would be wary of that," she said. "If they promise you anything, I would be wary of that, too. If they promise a green card in a certain time frame, I would be wary of that."
One scam highlighted on the USCIS website focuses on anyone who advertises as a notario publico. The person claims to provide legal services on immigration, but might not be a lawyer.
Pendino said this is "one of the buyer-beware issues."
It's "up to the immigrant to see if they're a licensed attorney," she said. People can ask to see a person's license or check padisciplinaryboard.org to see if an attorney has an active license and is in good standing.
The USCIS website, uscis.gov/avoidscams, also offers useful links.