Hiring a nonlawyer to do legal work carries the risk of a bad outcome, but the stakes can be especially high for immigrants. Misfiled forms or missed deadlines can lead to deportation.

Legal fraud targeting immigrants is on the rise, according to immigration lawyers who blame confusion arising from the political debate over immigration reform. Washington-area civil legal services groups recently sued the Federal Trade Commission for access to a national database of consumer complaints, saying the information would aid in the fight against fraud that affects immigrants and other vulnerable or low-income communities.

In a suit filed in Washington federal district court August 20, the nonprofits said the FTC wrongfully denied a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for broad access to the database, which is open to law enforcement agencies.

The public can pursue information about complaints against individual companies through FOIA. The plaintiffs argue that expanded access — assessing, for example, complaints within a geographic area — would make it easier to track patterns of fraud and allow the public to serve as a watchdog on anti-fraud enforcement efforts.

Of special concern to some of the plaintiffs is "notario" fraud. Notarios publicos are authorized in some Latin American countries to provide legal services, but they can't practice law in the United States. Immigration lawyers and advocates say that notarios prey on immigrants seeking less expensive legal help, or who might be fearful of going to someone outside their community.

"You can contact the state bar associations and get information about bad practice among attorneys, but we can't find out information about who are the bad-acting nonattorneys, and that's of crucial and vital importance," said Cori Alonso-Yoder, a staff attorney at Ayuda, one of the plaintiff organizations.

Ayuda, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. in Silver Spring, Md., and the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, Va., are represented pro bono by Bryan Cave. Partner David Zetoony, who leads the firm's data privacy and security practice, declined to comment.

In an August 12 letter responding to the FOIA requests, the FTC's acting general counsel, David Shonka, said the demands were "unreasonably burdensome." The commission would have to review millions of consumer complaints to make sure protected personal information wasn't disclosed, he wrote. (A spokesman for the commission declined to comment.)

Shonka wrote that it was unclear how expanded access to the database would help the public monitor the agency's performance. He noted that the public can make requests for information about a particular company or industry, which the nonprofits had done in the past.

The legal services groups countered that the FOIA process takes too long and produces inconsistent results. They argued that having to make detailed requests could chill the public from investigating the agency's performance.

Notario fraud may be coded as a different type of violation and notarios may be in the system for other types of complaints, the plaintiffs said. Having the flexibility to search the database would allow advocates and the public to account for those variables, the challengers argued.

Susan Timmons, associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's Practice and Professionalism Center, said there isn't formal data tracking notario fraud. "There's a lot of players trying to get in this game to figure out how you go after these people more effectively," she said. What Zetoony and the nonprofits were likely trying to do, she said, "is just try to give another option for the public-interest community."

The FTC received more than 2 million consumer complaints last year, according to its annual report. Of those complaints, 716 related to immigration services — a number lawyers said is significant given the lack of understanding about how to report fraud and fear among immigrants of coming forward. In recent years, agencies including the FTC and advocates have launched public awareness campaigns.

The plaintiffs aren't exclusively interested in notario fraud — they're seeking access to all consumer complaints. Alex Gulotta, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, said his organization hopes to track any type of fraud affecting its low-income clients.

The goal, he said, is to "make the information more readily available in real time so that people who may be dealing with folks who may be engaging in fraud can find that out before they're defrauded."

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com.