Operating with virtual impunity in Los Angeles for years, con artists have long targeted immigrants desperate for expert legal advice, defrauding some of their life savings and only hastening deportations or other personal disasters.
But a fledgling fraud unit at the county district attorney's office has been targeting such scammers since 2017, prosecuting eight cases that cheated at least 300 immigrants out of $3 million, prosecutors announced Tuesday.
Before the unit was formed using money from a consumer protection settlement, District Attorney Jackie Lacey said not many such fraud cases were prosecuted in the county "because we didn't have the resources and the training."
"I think immunity is exactly how they [the fraudsters] have felt," said Ryann Jorban, one of two prosecutors at the district attorney's office assigned to the Notario Fraud Unit, named for a Spanish word used interchangeably with "attorney."
The con artists tell Spanish-speaking immigrants that they're "notarios" and can help them with their cases, collecting their money while telling them not to worry about important notices from the government.
"They'll say, 'We'll take care of everything,' so they miss appointments or they don't pay their fees," Jorban said.
Some victims have been deported as a result of the fraud, including so-called "Dreamers," young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who've been allowed to remain.
"Unfortunately, these con artists know that not only will they give them everything they can to protect their families and themselves, but they will also be afraid to report, so there will be no repercussions," Jorban said.
The Notario unit's most recent conviction, that of 49-year-old Romina Zadorian of Montebello, involved 91 victims defrauded of $667,000 between 2014 and 2017.
Prosecutors said Zadorian would claim she worked for the government or had special connections and falsely promised that she could expedite the processing of immigration documents.
She was sentenced last week to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to grand theft, extortion and producing false government documents.
In a similar case, 53-year-old Gregory Chavez of Porter Ranch was sentenced to 15 years in jail for defrauding 102 immigrants. Two others got jail terms between five and nine years in separate cases last year involving nearly 70 victims defrauded of more than $700,000, prosecutors said.
While many such schemes involve Spanish-speaking immigrants, the Notario unit also is working on cases involving Asian immigrants.
Regardless of where they're from, immigrants without legal status need to realize they can report being victimized without worrying about being charged themselves, Lacey said.
"We take all complaints," she said. "That's the way we take these con artists out of commission, by taking them off the streets."