TAMPA, Fla. - An Orlando woman will spend six months in prison after a federal judge sentenced her Wednesday morning in Tampa for falsely using the ICE seal.
For her victims, the false paperwork and fake promises of citizenship crushed dreams of a future in the United States.
"We still cry for that," explained Reinaldo Bezera.
Bezera moved his family to Florida after kidnappings in Venezuela came too close to home in 2003.
"She was 7-years-old when they kidnapped my daughter," he explained.
A friend told Bezera about Maria Constantinou. Sometimes, federal agents say, she posed as an immigration attorney, and othertimes, as a paralegal.
For at least 10 years, Constantinou handed false documents to immigrants, claiming they came from the federal government.
Instead, she used scissors and tape to make copies of the seal, and never actually filed any paperwork at all.
Agents count at least 40 victims in west and central Florida.
"She just took the money and they never gained the legal immigration status they were looking for," explained ICE Spokesperson Carissa Cutrell. "She was taking thousands of dollars from each victim."
It took about 6 months for Alberto Gutierrez to catch on to the scheme.
"I feel weird, like what's happening over here? This is not right," he said. "It's really painful, emotional, your family."
Gutierrez found it odd that Constantinou never met him in a real office, always suggesting meetings in coffee shops or retail stores.
"One time I was driving with her and she said, 'Oh this place there will be my office. I just rented it,'" Gutierrez remembered.
According to Cutrell, "notario fraud" is highly prevalent, especially in states with a large immigrant population like Florida. Warning signs include cash payment only, no office, and no credentials.
"Don't be scared to ask the person that does something for you, 'Where's your office? Give me all your full information,'" Gutierrez said.
They're questions Bezara wishes he'd asked sooner, before he spent $12,000 and a decade working on immigration status he never obtained. Today, his daughter is 17-years-old and has no official means to remain long-term in the only country she knows as her home.
And in six months, he says Constantinou will live freely in the very country his family may now have to leave.
"I still cry for my daughter. She has no legal status," Bezara said. "[Constantinou] stole my dreams. She stole my family's dreams."
Anyone who is suspicious of notario fraud or may be a victim of Constantinou should call Homeland Security at 1-866-DHS-2ICE.
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