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Montreal Bar Warns of Fake Lawyers Targeting Immigrants with Scams

The Canadian dream can quickly become a nightmare for newcomers who fall prey to fake immigration lawyers, the president of the Bar of Montreal said as he reported a dramatic, local serge in such cases.

David Ettedgui—whose organization represents local lawyers—says the fraudsters are targeting one of the city’s most vulnerable populations, often charging exorbitant sums of cash only to deliver immigration assistance that’s mediocre at best. Others simply abandon their victims.

“We see anything from investors with deep pockets who have fallen for this scam as much as we see asylum seekers, some of whom cross the borders with nothing but their clothes and their suitcase,” Mr. Ettedgui said of the victims in an interview Feb. 16. “But the common thread between all of them is that they’re all trying to start a new life in Canada.”

The Bar of Montreal launched a campaign this week to raise awareness of the phenomenon, encouraging members of the public to verify that their immigration lawyers are authorized to practise in Quebec. The campaign includes graphics urging observers to beware of suspicious tactics, such as meetings in informal spaces, promises of fast results or the lack of a formal contract.

The campaign is necessary, Mr. Ettedgui said, because of a significant spike in the volume of immigration-related complaints the bar has received in recent years. The organization did not provide the total number of complaints that flow through its office, but said the share of reports about fake lawyers tripled between 2018 and 2022. Such cases accounted for 13 per cent of all complaints in 2018, it said, but had soared to 39 per cent four years later.

Official reports likely represent only a fraction of overall cases, it added.

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Ettedgui said it’s unclear if the spike is due to growth in the immigrant population, a more widespread understanding of immigrants’ rights or another reason. Most complaints come from legitimate lawyerswhose clients are former scam victims, he explained.

He said that in many cases fake lawyers are individuals who have been disbarred, or are themselves immigrants who were authorized to practice law in their country of origin but are not certified in Quebec.

One way to check a lawyer’s credentials is to search the Bar of Quebec’s online catalog of members, which lists their specialization, contact information and the address of their practice or employer. The Bar of Montreal campaign also includes a list of verified resources for finding accredited representation.

“For anyone leaving their country to settle here, it is essential to have the right support,” Ettedgui said in a statement at the campaign launch. “Entrusting your immigration file to a fake lawyer can have major consequences on your settlement process in Canada.”

Rose Ndjel has seen those consequences firsthand. The director of Montreal immigrant service centre Afrique au Féminin recalled two people who came to the organization in tears after they received an order from border officials to leave the country. They thought Canada was still processing their immigration requests, but later discovered they had been duped by a fake lawyer, Ms. Ndjel said.

“Cases like these are very, very, very frequent in our neighbourhood,” she lamented.

But Ms. Ndjel said victims often resist suggestions to file official complaints for fear of further jeopardizing their immigration status.

She described the Bar of Montreal campaign as encouraging, adding she hopes it will persist and expand.

“Someone has to lodge a complaint for someone to take responsibility,” she said of fake immigration lawyers. “Because as I’ve often said, they lodge a complaint and then we can address the complaint.”

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