"What you see is the creation of fraud and fear tactics and misinformation in a community that's extremely vulnerable," Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez said.
She said notario fraud is woefully underreported because immigrants are often linguistically and culturally isolated and afraid to go to police for fear of exposing their legal status.
"One of the reasons notario fraud is so effective is because, culturally, many of us come from countries where only lawyers are notaries," she said. "Therefore, there is a tendency to have confidence in that industry."
According to testimony read on his behalf, Edwin lost $15,000 to a North Philadelphia notario who promised him citizenship, then kept the money and left Edwin to his own devices.
"I made regular payments, a few hundred dollars at a time, to the man from the immigration business," he said.
"Whenever I asked, he told me that my green card was in process and that everything was fine, so I kept making payments. After about a year, when nothing happened, I started to get upset," he continued. "I asked why I had not received anything yet. He told me to be patient and that he had everything under control."
Speaking through interpreters, several other anonymous witnesses testified yesterday that they, too, had lost thousands of dollars to scammers in notario fraud.
Francis Healy, special adviser to the police commissioner, testified that he understands that cases of notario fraud go unreported because immigrants worry about deportation, but that the Police Department does not regularly communicate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and cases of fraud of any kind - regardless of the victims' citizenship status - will not be tolerated.
"We'll investigate any fraud that comes across our desk," Healy said. "We just need to be aware of it."
Last week, Councilman Dennis O'Brien introduced legislation that attempts to establish new licensing requirements, standards, protections and penalties to better regulate immigration-assistance services throughout the city. That bill will be debated at a later date.
"People capitalize on a person's vulnerability - substandard, false or nonexistent predatory advertising," O'Brien said. "Many trusting and unsuspecting people pay tens of thousands only to fall victim of fraud. We want to take this very important issue from out of the shadows and into the public."
On Twitter: @RuffTuffDH