Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Two scams out there: one targets unvisaed Tennesseans, another targets Spanish-speakers

Update below: How an ad for an "International Driver License" was pitched to me after posting this report.

There are at least two scams going around in Tennessee: one that targets the unvisaed immigrant, and one that targets Spanish-speakers.

"International drivers license" scam

When I was in Chile last month, my friends told me I should have gotten an "international drivers license" so if I got pulled over in my rental car, I wouldn't have any trouble with the local police. While there is such a thing as an international driving permit (the AAA and the NAC are the only authorized issuers for bearers of U.S. drivers licenses, according to the U.S. State Department), the term "international drivers license" is being used to sell worthless documents to unvisaed immigrants in Tennessee, according to the Commercial Appeal (h/t: Post Politics). The purpose of the scam, according to the article:
to fool the person who's buying the document, not the person they'll show it to
According to the Commercial Appeal article, the "international drivers license" vendors claim that their service offers a translation of valid foreign drivers licenses. According to the U.S. government, however, while holders of valid foreign drivers licenses can legally drive in the U.S. under an international driving permit, there are two important conditions:
  • The document can only be used by foreigners traveling in the U.S., not foreigners residing here
    Source: Federal Trade Commission
  • Application for the international driving permit has to be from outside the U.S.
    Source: USA.gov
Victims of the international drivers license scams are encouraged to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Notaries impersonating lawyers

When someone registers as a notary public in Tennessee and offers legal services to Spanish-speakers under the title of "notario publico," that is a scam - because in Latin America, a notario publico is an attorney, but in Tennessee, a notary public is not. The scam takes advantage of the similarity of the two terms. From the Attorney General's office:
Attorney General Bob Cooper, on behalf of Mary Clement, the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, filed three settlements and two lawsuits today involving companies allegedly using misleading advertisements promoting themselves as a “notario publico” in Tennessee.

The Spanish translation of “notary public” is “notario publico,” or in the plural “notarios publicos.” In many Spanish-speaking countries, a notario publico is a civil-law notary, or an attorney who has been specially appointed to grant public faith to certain common, everyday transactions. As a result, consumers often believe these individuals and the related transactions involve a higher level of trust and accuracy.

Unfortunately, some businesses are targeting Spanish-speaking Tennessee residents by advertising themselves as “notarios publicos”, when they are merely offering notary public services. Under Tennessee law, a notary public who is not licensed to practice law in Tennessee and advertises their services as a notary public must include in all advertisements the following disclaimer in English and the language used in the ad: “I AM NOT AN ATTORNEY LICENSED TO PRACTICE LAW IN THE STATE OF TENNESSEE, AND I MAY NOT GIVE LEGAL ADVICE OR ACCEPT FEES FOR LEGAL ADVICE.”

“My office is concerned about any businesses misleading consumers,” Attorney General Cooper said. “We will continue to enforce the Notaries Public law to ensure that all consumers understand what they are purchasing.”

The State has entered settlements with Conny Diaz, individually and doing business as Diaz Servicio de Taxes, based in Northern Mississippi; Selvyn Amaya, individually and doing business as Servicios Publicos, Casa Taxes and Casa y Taxes, based in Nashville; and Julio Barillas, individually and doing business as Reembolsos Rapidos and JB Services, based in Memphis.

These businesses, which advertised in Tennessee without the required disclaimer, have agreed to modify their advertisements to comply with state law and to pay civil penalties and attorneys’ fees.

The State additionally filed lawsuits against the following individuals and companies: Juan Hernandez, individually and doing business as Centro Azteca, a Chattanooga company; and Edison Roman, individually and doing business as Oficina Internacional in Memphis.

The State’s lawsuits allege violations of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act for advertising as a “notario publico” without the required disclaimer. In addition, the complaint against Juan Hernandez, individually and doing business as Centro Azteca, alleges the company advertised as “abogados,” the Spanish word for “attorneys,” without any disclaimer. The State is seeking an injunction, restitution, civil penalties and attorneys’ fees in both lawsuits.

Director Clement warned consumers to be careful when choosing individuals to perform legal services. “I encourage Tennesseans in need of an attorney to confirm the attorney is in good standing and licensed to practice law in the state of Tennessee by contacting the Board of Professional Responsibility at (615) 361-7500 or going to the website at http://www.tbpr.org/,” she said.

To see a copy of the State’s filings, go to www.attorneygeneral.state.tn.us and then click on Office Information and Cases of Interest at http://www.tn.gov/attorneygeneral/cases/cases.htm.

Consumers who have complaints about any of the companies sued by the State or other individuals or businesses advertising as a “notario publico” without the required disclaimer or otherwise engaged in unfair or deceptive trade practices should contact the Division of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-342-8385 (toll-free inside Tennessee) or (615) 741-4737.

If you know of an individual or company that may be practicing law without a license, please file a complaint with this Office by downloading a complaint form from http://www.attorneygeneral.state.tn.us/cpro/upl.htm and mailing it back to this Office at:

Tennessee Attorney General's Office
Consumer Advocate and Protection Division
Attn: UPL Complaint
P.O. Box 20207
Nashville, TN 37202-0207
Edited to add: When I published this story, a 300x250 block ad was displayed in my Blogger.com dashboard, with the headline "GET YOUR INTERNATIONAL DRIVER LICENSE NOW!". It was not from the NAC or the AAA. I clicked over from the company's professional-looking ad to its professional-looking web site, and it claims to be in good standing with the Better Business Bureau. The "Legal Disclaimer" section says the following:
The information contained within this website is protected under the Article of the 1st Amendment [sic] to the United States Constitution and is not intended to contain legal advise [sic]. The primary function of this website is for educational [sic] on a translation document and nothing within should be construed as legal advice.
The "Conditions" that appear in the online application page are as follows:
I pledge to follow all city, state, federal & international traffic regulations required by law. I acknowledge that I may not drive anywhere without a valid driver's license. I will obey all of the rules and regulations of the UN Conference on Road Traffic in [sic] 1923, 1943, 1949 and 1968. I acknowledge that this document is a driver license translation and is valid only with a driver license. I hereby certify that my driver license is currently valid and is not suspended or revoked.

[checkbox] I accept this [sic] conditions
Graphically, the advertiser's site is much more impressive than the AAA and NAC sites. But for a service touting translation as its primary function, however, you have to wonder. Maybe the legal disclaimers and conditions and the company's use of the term "international drivers license" mean that the company admits that its document does not constitute an international driving permit. Notice how they phrase the first bullet point on the front page of their web site, without actually saying that the document entitles the bearer to legally drive in the U.S.:
Drive a car in almost any place in the world!. [sic]
I wonder what their response would be to the allegation that their document is "worthless" or a "scam." From the pictures, the product looks like a very pretty translation of whatever information the applicant submits to the company online or via mail. Whether the product purports to be more, and is not, is the scam question.

It comes in the form of a small card, bearing the consumer's photo and identifying information, with the title "International Driver Document" in English, "Licencia de Conducir Internacional" in Spanish, and "Permis de Conduire International" in French.

Photo by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier. Licensed under Creative Commons.

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