Hispanics in Montgomery County are frequent victims of mortgage, car and credit card scams but rarely report such fraud cases out of fear, poor English language skills or ignorance, according to local and federal officials.
Montgomery housing officials, seeking to prevent the scams and to encourage reporting when they occur, sponsored a consumer protection symposium for Hispanic community leaders yesterday with the hope that they will relay the message, resources and information to people in their neighborhoods.
"We need to dedicate ourselves to communicating with this community a little more," said Myriam A. Torrico, administrator of the Hispanic/Latino Initiative in the county Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
The program followed a similar one held in October and looked to build upon simply identifying the scams. Officials from AARP and the Federal Trade Commission, which co-sponsored the event, asked the approximately 60 participants to help them get the word out that government officials are there to help.
Hispanic immigrants, in particular, often bring a distrust of government with them from their native countries, county officials say, so the officials are hopeful that community leaders can act as mediators between local governments and Hispanic consumers.
"What we find is, if somebody from the Montgomery County government says something, they don't care. But if it's a leader in their community, they will respond to it," County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said in a telephone interview.
Although legal immigrants often work with local authorities, illegal immigrants are less likely to report consumer fraud or more common crimes for fear of being deported. Hispanics in Montgomery number 112,974, or 12.4 percent of the county's population, according to 2003 data from the census, but many believe the numbers are much higher.
Language is often a barrier to reporting crimes, but bridging the language gap might not be enough, said Nelson Ortega, operations director for Centro de la Comunidad Inc., a Latino community center in Baltimore. The approach can't just be bilingual or trilingual; it has to be bicultural to reach out to local Hispanics, he said.
"We realize translating a document is not enough," said Eric S. Friedman, chief of Montgomery's Division of Consumer Affairs in the Housing and Community Affairs Department.
The county's efforts to reach out to Hispanic immigrants has drawn international attention, Torrico said. Twelve government representatives from El Salvador recently visited to learn about last year's symposium in hopes of replicating the consumer protection and housing outreach efforts in their country.
Making sure the information reaches the Hispanic community is important, but the key is for the community to use these resources to protect itself from fraud, said Junior Ortiz, director of Hispanic membership for AARP's office of diversity.
"If we don't take care of ourselves, nobody else is going to take care of us," Ortiz said.