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Baltimore couple accused of scamming new immigrants

A federal judge has shuttered a Baltimore couple's businesses and frozen most of their assets after the Federal Trade Commission accused the prominent pair — well known within the city's Hispanic community — of illegally selling slipshod immigration services to hundreds of local Latinos.

Manuel and Lola Alban, ages 70 and 66 respectively, are accused in court documents of lying about their qualifications and taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from more than 800 foreigners for services they weren't authorized to perform, such as filing documents required for U.S. residency.

What's more, they did the job poorly, prosecutors claim: More than half of the applications the Albans filed on behalf of others were rejected as untimely or incomplete — adding actual injury to the insult, said Eliseo N. Padilla, an attorney prosecuting the case for the Federal Trade Commission.

The Albans case is among the first filed under a new nationwide initiative — announced this month — to fight scams aimed at would-be immigrants through civil and criminal enforcement at the federal, state and local levels. Targeted in the effort are so-called "notarios," who misrepresent themselves as legal professionals certified in immigration services.

Such con artists "can't hide any longer," Padilla said. He called the case against the Albans "the first in an ongoing effort to address the issue."

The couple has been under a temporary restraining order since June 1 that froze roughly $850,000 in assets and prevents them performing immigration services. U.S. District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis extended the order during a hearing Monday, and said he would soon issue a more detailed preliminary injunction in the case.

Dozens of similar cases are currently under investigation, according to the Department of Justice, which has prosecuted 14 such criminal actions at the federal level in eight states since 2008 — including the case of Robert Fred Mejia: The Germantown man was sentenced to eight years in prison this year for stealing thousands from people for immigration services he never provided.

They are "really sham operations that are taking advantage of truly vulnerable people," Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said in an interview. "This is the most base of fraudulent activity that some of these companies are engaged in. They're holding themselves out as able to help people do… the right thing, which is get on a path toward citizenship, [but instead, they] steal their money."

In response to a complaint, Gansler's office filed an administrative cease-and-desist order against Baltimore's Latin Service LLC and its owners earlier this month. He announced the order on June 9 to coincide with the disclosure of the national effort, in which his office is participating.

"There's a proliferation of this. Anytime there's a group of people who are in a vulnerable position, there are those who would take further advantage," Gansler said. "These notario storefronts are blossoming in Maryland and throughout the country."

The seven-page order against Latin Service was issued June 7 by William D. Gruhn, chief of the Consumer Protection Division within Gansler's office. It claims that Latin Service had "deceptive trade practices" that harmed consumers and ordered the tax consulting business to: stop offering illegal immigration services, to post signs saying they're not authorized to perform such work and to repay "all monies consumers paid… for any immigration consultant services."

Latin Service's attorney, Towson-based Jose Molina, admits that his clients wrongfully provided immigration services, which largely involved filling out forms. But he says that they didn't know it was illegal.

"There's' no allegation that there was a breach of the integrity between them and their clients. They provided the clients the services that the clients were looking for, it's just that they're not licensed to do that," Molina said. "They're not scam artists."

The case against the Albans alleges that the couple has "caused substantial injury to consumers." Prosecutors expect to request more than a half million dollars in restitution for the Albans' 800-plus alleged victims.

The couple has long been regarded as advocates for the Hispanic community, their attorney said. For years, they published the area's only Spanish-language newspaper along with a directory of Latino businesses, according to newspaper reports. They have raised money for community centers in the past and been active in Hispanic advisory councils.

"These are longstanding, highly esteemed members of the Hispanic community who fought for the rights of their community for decades," said their lawyer, John A. Bourgeois. "It's [ridiculous] that the government wants to use a sledge hammer to come after a small mom and pop operation."

Court documents claim that the couple ran "Servicios Latinoamericanos de Maryland" and "Loma International Business Group, with no employees other than themselves, providing translation services and drug and alcohol counseling. They also held themselves out to be legal professionals authorized to do immigration work, according to the FTC complaint against them, filed June 1.

"Since most consumers have limited English skills, they place their trust in the Albans to select, prepare, and file the necessary English language immigration forms," the complaint states. The Albans sometimes make mistakes "that cause harm to consumers' immigration standing," then charge additional fees to repair the damage.

Their Calvert Street offices are filled with a decades-worth of unorganized paperwork, lawyers on both sides said Monday, as the Albans looked on. An outside investigator will be hired to go through the mess to determine what assets the Albans have and what restitution they may actually owe.

Each side is fighting over the figures, though they agreed on one thing: It's in everyone's interest to settle the issues swiftly.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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