By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The thorny problem of fraud against immigrants got a hearing today at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in West Philadelphia.

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And the panel convened to call attention to the issue also reinforced how hard it is to combat this type of crime.

Immigration attorney Susan Smolens says she has been fighting for ten years to stop a woman who calls herself a notaria — a term that in the Spanish-speaking community is synonymous with “lawyer” — but who has no authorization to represent immigrants seeking benefits.

“We have a number of people who’ve been put into deportation proceedings,” Smolens said today, “and we have at least one case we know of where she kept the money that was for filing fees, which are thousands of dollars.”

So, Smolens was heartened to see USCIS address the problem but discouraged by what she heard from panel members today.

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Prosecutors, for example, said reluctant witnesses make criminal action almost impossible.

Vanessa Stine, who founded the Notario Fraud Project through Villanova, says public education about the problem has its limits.

“People are really desperate to legalize their status and they’re going to want to believe that they qualify for something, and fraudsters are going to continue to defraud them,” Stine says.

But she says that civil action may be turn out to be effective.  Her group has filed a case that she says will test state consumer protection laws.

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