14 November 2005

Notary Fraud and KMGG

Colorado, and just about every state with a significant immigrant population, has a long standing problem with notary fraud. The problem isn't that notaries are going around affirming that someone signed something when they didn't (although the few cases I've seen of that happening are doozies and most major brokerages and life insurance companies have their own parallel system called the guaranteed signature program to prevent that kind of fraud from happening to them). It is a problem with notaries claiming that they know more than they do and giving bad advice for unreasonable sums of money.

In the United States, with the possible exception of Louisiana, a notary is a warm body, who claims to have no criminal record, with about fifteen minutes of training, whose job is to check the identify of people before the sign documents, and then to affix a seal to the document stating that they were he they said they were. A tiny percentage of notaries also protest bad checks and/or administer oaths as part of the process of taking dictation during a deposition in a court case.

In continental Europe and every country, including essentially all of Latin America, whose legal system decends from continental Europe, notary is a far more impressive title. Typically a city or rural region is broken up into districts, and the government grants several notary licenses in each district. These licenses are bought, sold and inherited, something like seats on the New York Stock Exchange. Fees for particular tasks are often regulated. Notaries in those legal system have a legal education comparable in depth to attorneys, and perform most functions filled in the American system by transactional and estate attorneys. They draft wills, leases, deeds, mortgages, security agreements, corporate documents and contacts, for example, and handle the uncontested part of the docket handled by probate courts in the United States. Offcially, at least, they don't have the kind of advocacy role, to favor their client over someone else, held by American attorneys; they operate under a myth of neutrality. They also serve as the continential equivalent of a clerk and recorder -- maintaining public records of property transactions, for example, in their offices. The broad responsibilities of notaries in these countries (along with the large number of people in big businesses in these countries with law degrees who are not admitted attorneys who help handle non-litigation legal matters for their companies in these countries) is one of the significant reason that they have far fewer attorneys per capita than in the United States.

The problem is that many unscrupulous people in the United States obtain notary public commissions here, hold themselves out as "notarios" to an immigrant community, and then act as if they were continental style notaries, despite the fact that they don't have that kind of education or authority, often for European notary class fees. The unauthorized practice of law committee in Colorado, the attorney general's office and some state statutes have tried to combat it for years. Drive down a street in West Denver and you'll see their signs and get a sense of what is going on.

The trap is a natural one for people unfamiliar with the American legal system to fall into, because, if you haven't taken a comparative law class or spend a significant amount of time in both systems, an immigrant from a civil law country (which is what countries with continental European legal systems are called) will naturally expect a notary in the U.S. to be similar to a notary at home.

Local media doesn't help either. The radio station KMGG, at 95.7 FM, which calls itself MEGA is a Spanish oriented R&B/Techno station in Denver (Denver once had an English language techno station for almost a year, which I dearly miss, but it couldn't find advertisers). Its Spanglish content, "Latino and Proud" motto, and intense beat targets younger listeners -- like people in generation 1.5 (people who immigrated to the United States as children) and people born in the United States who grew up in Spanish speaking families. Sunday morning, like most stations, it breaks with it usual format. Last Sunday, it had a little talk session about how not to be exploited when buying a home.

I can't speak, understand or read Spanish, but my wife, who lived abroad in a Spanish speaking country for a while in high school, took Spanish to an advanced level in college, and has polished her skills intermittenly since, talking to Spanish speaking people who have children at our local elementary school, for example, while not precisely fluent is close and was listening. She had also been made aware of notary fraud from talking to me.

Most of the advice was good. Be sure to have the house inspected by someone you pay to do the job. Asking questions means you're smart, not stupid, on a big purchase like this one. And, more generally, buyer beware. But, one myth it perpetuated, was pretty appalling. While the "don't just sign documents without knowing what they say" part was on target, the "ask the notary whose handling the closing what the legal effect of the documents you are signing is" part, helped to perpetuate this long standing fraud.

The people giving the advice probably were simply amateur do gooders who didn't know better. Pop music radio stations aren't known for their skill in selecting qualified people to give advice on Sunday morning. I've actually been a guest on very similar radio shows several Sunday mornings on KTLK on the AM dial, and they had more qualified people. But, that had more to do with the program's promoters, generally competent financial professional with whom my employer at the time had a relationship, who were basically running an infommerical as part of their marketing program, rather than as a result of any due diligence exercised by the radio station.

Still, it is disappointing to see this kind of fraud encouraged. And, given where we are now, I suspect it will be a very long time until it changes. In the meantime, it would be nice if the U.S. citizenship exam were changed to remove useless bits of patriotic trivia like "George Washington was the father of our country", and replace it with more practical bits of wisdom like "notaries in the United States are not qualfied to offer legal advice." Even better, Denver ought to prepare a document something like the "Code of the West" documents offered by counties in rural Colorado to acquaint new exurbanites with local realities, with a multiple language "Living in America" document pointing out common frauds like this one. Nothing will end the problem, but, every little bit helps.

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