Feds target ex-con ‘attorney imposter’ for allegedly preying on undocumented immigrants
Authorities raided the woman's business in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Federal authorities in Pennsylvania are investigating an ex-con who they say preyed on undocumented immigrants by posing as a lawyer and offering thousands of dollars' worth of "legal services" she was not licensed to provide.
At times, 55-year-old Ana Molina of Philadelphia would even use the personal information of past clients to fraudulently bolster immigration cases for her newer clients, a Homeland Security Investigations agent alleged in court documents.
"Molina is an attorney imposter," the agent said in the documents. "Molina accepts money for filing applications for legal status adjustments the client may not even qualify for."
The case shows that even as the Trump administration cracks down on undocumented immigrants inside the United States, the Justice Department is still trying to root out criminals who would target vulnerable immigrants, as recently described by the department.
But an attorney representing Molina said the case only shows a "not-so-subtle attempt to bully Ms. Molina into ending the immigration assistance she provides to immigrants who come to this country in search of a better life."
"It should not surprise anyone that in this current political climate, [the federal government] is targeting an immigrant who makes a living helping other immigrants get their affairs in order," the attorney said in a statement to ABC News.
A decade ago, Molina served more than two years in prison after pleading guilty to money-laundering charges connected to a drug trafficking case. After her release, a federal judge allowed her to operate an immigration services business in Philadelphia.
But in court documents filed Tuesday, federal investigators alleged Molina used that business, "Molina Multilegal Services," to dupe undocumented immigrants and their families or friends out of thousands of dollars. She even threatened clients who sought to get their money back, the court documents alleged.
Although Molina has yet to be charged, the court documents said there is "probable cause to believe" Molina committed mail fraud and identity theft, citing several cases of Molina's "fraudulent legal representation" in recent years.
In some cases, Molina stole "identity documents from unwitting individuals and used their information" to "defraud" U.S. agencies into believing applicants for immigration status were financially secure and wouldn't need government assistance, according to the court documents.
Several years ago, a Dominican woman allegedly paid Molina $1,800 to resolve her husband's immigration case. To prove the couple's financial security, the woman provided Molina with her tax returns.
But when the couple grew dissatisfied with Molina's assistance and asked for their money back, Molina allegedly refused, instead telling the husband he was "illegal and couldn’t do anything," the husband later recalled to federal authorities, according to the court records.
Then, after being hired by a man from Jamaica, Molina used the Dominican woman's tax forms to file documents on behalf of the Jamaican client, federal authorities alleged.
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents executed a search warrant at Molina's office on Wednesday.
Molina previously earned a degree in "paralegal studies," according to an online profile of Molina, which was taken down after Wednesday's raid.
Her company's website, however, describes her as a "renowned lawyer," and — according to court documents — she repeatedly claimed to prospective clients that she is a practicing attorney, including during a recorded phone call two weeks ago.
In his statement to ABC News, the attorney representing Molina, Joseph Lento, said she "will defend herself and the work she does."
"Ms. Molina maintains her innocence and believes that many of the allegations in the [court documents] are either inaccurate or flat-out untrue," Lento said.
Molina's case is one of many such cases around the country. In 2016 alone, federal authorities received more than 1,100 complaints related to immigration services.
But "quantifying the scope of immigration services fraud is difficult because scams are underreported," according to the Washington, D.C.-based organization Ayuda, which provides legal assistance to immigrants and whose name means "help" in Spanish.
Last year, a federal jury in Philadelphia convicted a 65-year-old New Jersey man on several fraud charges for what prosecutors described as his "brazen behavior in posing, for decades, as a licensed attorney."
Leaford Cameron took more than $200,000 from at least 100 victims, many of whom were immigrants and low-income people, according to a Justice Department press release on the case. He was sentenced to 12 years behind bars.
"Far from a guardian of the law, Cameron is a crook whose fraud caused serious harm to his victims and the public's trust in our legal institutions," the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William McSwain, said at the time.
Cameron has appealed his conviction, and that appeal is still pending.
McSwain's office is now overseeing the investigation targeting Molina, who was born in Peru and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1987.
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