Colorado’s attorney general wants more fraud complaints from Spanish speakers

Fraud claims Colorado victims of all kinds, but it’s been way easier to complain in English.
7 min. read
The Conectoras de Montbello, a group of resident community leaders in Montbello, host a monthly Loteria (Mexican Bingo) game at Volunteers of America’s Montbello Manor. Photo courtesy of Latino Community Foundation of Colorado.

Colorado's Attorney General Office wants to hear more complaints.

And as weird as that sounds, it's because they want to do a better job of ensuring that a major demographic -- Spanish-speaking residents -- know what the office can do for them.

About four years ago, the AG launched an anti-fraud program and later launched a Spanish version of the website called "No Más Fraude Colorado." When Attorney General Phil Weiser took office this year, he began expanding it.

"It's still a work in progress," said Efrain Bueno, a staffer helping with Spanish translation. The office suspects a majority of Spanish-speaking population doesn't know about what their office or what it does.

"Right now we are not getting enough complaints in Spanish, which means we need to do more outreach, so consumers can feel good coming to us," Bueno said.

One high-profile case showed how Latinos can be targeted.

The AG's office announced in March that the owners of Denver Custom Food Trucks must pay $4.5 million to people they defrauded. Victims had paid thousands of dollars for shoddy food trucks. Assistant Attorney General Jay Simonson said a "a significant" number of the 89 people they interviewed for that case were Spanish-speakers.

Simonson said the two owners (also Spanish speakers) appeared to target Latinos and Spanish-speakers. They published ads in Spanish promising to build food trucks quickly and at low prices.

Yet last year, Bueno said the office received 101 calls in Spanish -- a tiny fraction of the overall calls they took in (9,312).

"Complaints that we receive in Spanish is very, very low percentage considering all of the amount (the receive)," Bueno said. "Which means people don't even know we exist."

The website aims to paint the AG's office as a helper, not just an enforcer.

The website is essentially a carbon-copy version of the English site with Spanish options. Bueno said the site has about 80 percent of what the English site has.

"We still need to inform consumers and make them more comfortable, especially the Spanish-speaking population, so they can feel more comfortable that they can come to us and change the mentality that we are an enforcement agency and we're here to help them," Bueno said.

Outreach will focus on consumer protection. Bueno said the office is in the process of hiring a Spanish-language outreach coordinator. Spanish-language social media accounts are in the works in hopes that the office can replicate the millions of impressions they see from its English accounts.

The office isn't quite sure how much more Spanish-language complaints they hope to see. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, reports about 12 percent of Colorado's population -- or nearly 600,000 residents -- live in a household where Spanish is spoken.

"I just know that it should be a lot higher than that," Bueno said about the number of calls they get.

It turns out anti-fraud services for Spanish-speakers are likely in high demand.

After the office was invited to an event sponsored by a Latino community organization last week, Bueno received a warm response.

Efrain Bueno, an administrator at the Colorado Attorney General's office, speaks to a reporter. July 9, 2019. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

"Immediately, people that were there were asking me questions about fraud and one of the persons that talked to me, she told me her story, and it's a great experience, because it proves the fact that we need to do more outreach and when they hear the name, 'No Más Fraude,' they can immediately relate to it, rather than a name in English," Bueno said.

It can be hard to describe what the AG's office does, which is another way the website serves as an introduction for folks unfamiliar with its duties. Typically, when a Spanish-language resident calls the AG's office, Bueno said they're "really confused" and not quite sure who they're calling.

A call usually ends with a referral to the website, where complaints can be processed in statement form (formal complaints are not taken over the phone).

Daniela Young, program manager at the Latino advocacy group Latino Age Wave Colorado, helps connect older Latinos with resources. The group currently has a pilot program operating a pop-up adult center in Montbello. She sees first-hand some of the struggles older Latinos can face.

"What we're finding is there are added stressors and barriers for Latino older adults in accessing services," Young said.

And yes, that includes language barriers. It's not simply about different languages, as Young points out. It's not always enough to have a Spanish translator since there can be different dialects from different Latin American countries.

"So sometimes, a lot can get lost in translation even when you have quote-unquote Spanish language providers," Young said.

Perla Gheiler, director of Denver's Office on Aging, oversees a mobile resource center called DenverConnect that connects older adults with resources from both the city and the Attorney General's office.

DenverConnect makes stops at community events around the city, like its scheduled stop at the Senior Olympics in Montbello on Saturday. Gheiler said she and other DenverConnect staffers are bilingual, so they don't usually need additional translators.

Still, she sees the need for more resources available in Spanish for neighborhoods like Montbello and Westwood. The van carries materials in both languages.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock (center) during a ribbon cutting launching Denver Connect on April 12, 2019, in Denver. Photo courtesy of the Attorney General's office.

"We feel like a lot of the most marginalized communities for older adults are some of our Hispanic and African American older adults," Gheiler said. She said there are residents who have lived in local neighborhoods for decades that still primarily speak Spanish.

Spanish is not the only additional language in demand. Gheiler said they're looking for a Russian-language translator to serve Jewish communities in the city, specifically in areas in southwest and southeast Denver. Vietnamese and Swahili are other languages Gheiler said they've encountered out in the community.

Young said she hasn't necessarily noticed an increase in scams targeting the Latino community.

More often than not, residents who might feel they are targets of potential scams reach out to trusted community leaders for guidance on whether they should respond to certain voicemails or messages they receive.

"I think older adults have been taken advantage of for years," Young said. "It's been an ongoing issue."

Bueno, a native speaker who was raised in Mexico, sees his current work as personal: One of his parents was a victim of a scam, losing hundreds of dollars in the process. It's only fueled his excitement for the office's new initiative, which he sees as a chance to show Latinos that the AGs office is a "safe place for them to come." He knows it won't be easy, though, since the office has some catching up to do.

"We hope that they will have more confidence in us and also educate (them) that the attorney general is here to protect the word of law," Bueno said.

Inspired by conversations with people in the community, Denverite and Colorado Public Radio are taking a week to produce a short series of stories about Colorado through the lens of languages used here. Here's a story at Colorado Public Radio about what it's like to be an English language learner. It's another way for us to consider our state and who lives here, but it's also a test balloon and a call for feedback and ideas -- do you have a language-related story you think we should know about? Let us know: [email protected].

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