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Department of Consumer Affairs
A Resource For Addressing the Needs of Immigrants in New York City

Fran Freedman, LMSW, Associate Commissioner, New York City Department of Consumer Affairs

November 2009

 

For social workers assisting immigrant and refugee clients in New York City, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) is an often overlooked but incredibly trustworthy and reliable resource for information and referrals. The Department has worked to ensure a fair and vibrant marketplace for consumers and businesses alike for the past 40 years, and in the past three years, has reinvented itself to include protecting and empowering consumers with low incomes in the financial services marketplace. As a regulatory agency, DCA licenses more than 71,000 businesses each year in 57 industries, including those that disproportionately impact immigrants and people with low incomes: debt collectors, process servers, second hand dealers, used car dealers, employment agencies, street vendors and pawn brokers.

DCA administers the most comprehensive municipal consumer protection law in the country, which protects consumers against deceptive and unconscionable trade practices including false advertising, and establishes businesses’ obligations to provide important disclosures like receipts and refund policies. This law gives DCA strong protection and enforcement powers, even in industries it does not regulate, like tax preparers and immigrant service providers. DCA mediates and resolves thousands of consumer complaints annually against businesses that don’t do right by their customers, generating millions of dollars in restitution for wronged consumers. Last year, for example, DCA recovered more than $8 million in restitution for such consumers. DCA adjudicates cases that can’t be resolved by mediation through its administrative law judges, and has the power to bring large-scale law suits against predatory businesses.

Through its City-wide public awareness campaigns (its seven-year old campaign targeted to workers with low incomes who may be eligible for the Earned Income tax Credit and the NYC Child Care tax Credit is a good example); a vast array of publications in many languages ( including “What You Need to Know About Immigration Service Providers” in 11 languages); and on-the ground, City-wide community outreach, DCA empowers consumers to help themselves.

In addition to the thousands of routine inspections of all business we perform each year, DCA conducts periodic enforcement sweeps of immigration service providers and employment agencies, fining and even shuttering those that take advantage of consumers. We need your help to empower your clients and all consumers, regardless of immigration status, to come forward and report to DCA when they have been harmed by businesses: file complaints by calling 311 or filling out and emailing DCA’s online complaint form at www.nyc.gov/consumers. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Executive Order 41 prohibits City employees from inquiring about a person’s immigration status unless it is required to qualify for specific programs, and all information about immigration status is kept strictly confidential

DCA’s Financial Empowerment Centers, located in every borough, are an exciting new referral source for your immigrant and refugee clients who may need help in budgeting, money management, paying down debt, accessing affordable financial services and increasing savings to reach personal financial goals and garnering valuable tax benefits. The Centers’ one-one-one counseling services are free and confidential and offered in English and Spanish.

As immigrant families prepare for the upcoming tax season in January, here are some helpful tips to share with your clients:
A tax return must be filed in order to receive important tax credits.
Immigrants with a Social Security Number (SSN) may be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refund.

An IRS-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) can be obtained by immigrants who are ineligible for a SSN, so they can claim other tax credits geared towards parents. Visit www.irs.gov to find further instructions on ITINs.
Refund Anticipation Loans (RALs) that promise quick refunds are actually very high interest loans and unnecessary fees. Instead, clients can electronically file their return and should receive their refund in 8 to 14 business days.

Call 311 or visit www.nyc.gov/consumers and www.nyc. gov/ofe to access all of DCA’s rich resources, including its publications in many languages; find free tax preparation sites for your clients and determine eligibility for tax credits; make appointments for free counseling at a Financial Empowerment Center; and search the Financial Education Network database of the City’s free and low-cost providers of financial education workshops, courses, lectures, and additional counseling services.

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