Avoiding immigration scams
Immigration scams can cost you money right away, cause serious immigration consequences, or lead to identity theft that could have a long-term impact on your financial well-being.
Many immigrants are anxious about the immigration process, or unsure of their qualification for permanent residence or other visas, and unfamiliar with how the government of the United States conducts its business. And many immigrants do not speak English as their native language or are not deeply familiar with the cultural norms of the United States.
There are scammers who attack immigrants at every step of the immigration process.
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One of the more common immigration scams involves unscrupulous individuals who offer to help immigrants file documentation with the government in exchange for a large fee, but then never file the documentation, or apply for immigration benefits for which their “clients” they are not eligible, and generally create more immigration problems for their victims.
An especially deceptive advertising tactic used by many of these individuals is to call themselves a “notary” or “notary public.” In Latin America and Europe, a notary or notary public often refers to someone who has a high level of education and the equivalent of a license to practice law. In the United States, however, a notary public is someone simply someone who has a license to certify signatures, and the designation does not carry specific educational requirements. Therefore, many scammers use terms like “notary” to pose as attorneys, when in fact they have little or no legal training.
According to USCIS, there are only two types of licensed immigration service providers who are allowed to provide legal advice on your specific case and contact USCIS on your behalf:
Reputable Registered Attorneys: If you choose to work with an attorney, you must be licensed to practice law in at least one state ( check here ), and must not appear on the Department of Justice (DOJ) list of bad behavior ( check here ).
Accredited Non-Attorneys: Within the Department of Justice, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) recognizes certain non-profit organizations that can provide legal services. Anyone who is not an attorney within that organization must appear on this list of DOJ accredited representatives .
Resources for finding authorized legal help include the Department of Justice’s list of immigration attorneys who provide free services (ad honorem) , this directory of nonprofit organizations that provide legal services, and the Association’s attorney search tool. American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Even after verifying that you are working with an authorized legal service provider, it is always a good idea to make sure you understand the process, schedule, and fee structure before you begin.
The other major type of immigration scam is people and websites posing as government agencies, usually USCIS or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When scam artists pose as an ICE USCIS official, they often phone, email, or visit the victim and report a problem with their immigration status. Scammers will then offer to “fix” the problem for a fee. Scammers can threaten and tell you that if you do not pay such a fee, your visa application process may be denied, or even deported. While these scams are often focused on getting immediate payment, there are also scams that simply collect or “verify” personal information such as name, date of birth, social security numbers and addresses; all this can be used to later steal the identity of the victim.
Phone scams : The victim receives a phone call that appears to be from the direct telephone number of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or a number from the local USCIS office, but the true phone number is hidden. In one version of this “phishing” scam, the scammer says he or she is from “United States immigration” and requests personal information or requests a payment. Remember, USCIS will not request personal information over the phone, and DHS never uses the direct number for outgoing calls.
Deportation Threats : In an attempt to take advantage of the fear of deportation, bogus “ICE agents” arrive at the homes of immigrants, present them with false warrants, or tackle them on the streets, threatening to deport them if they do not pay hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Diversity Visa Scam : The victim receives an email posing as the United States Department of State and claims that he has won the Diversity Visa Lottery. This scam usually asks the victim to send money through Western Union to “process the visa application,” something the real State Department would never do.
Fraudulent Websites : Victim is encouraged to submit immigration documents and pay USCIS fees through a website with a logo and web address similar to official United States government websites. These “copycat” websites lead immigrants to believe they are paying a government filing fee to USCIS, when in fact the money goes directly to the scammers who operate the website. Fraudulent websites sometimes also claim to file immigration forms directly with USCIS, leading victims to believe that the government processes their immigration documents when they have never actually been filed with the entity.
Fortunately, spotting immigration scams isn’t too difficult if you know what you’re looking for. Here are some of the main signs that you are dealing with a scammer:
The news is too good to be true. For example, if other attorneys have told you that you do not qualify for a green card but they say there will be no problem, it could be a scam. Similarly, you won’t be able to avoid deportation by paying ICE officials a few hundred dollars (or, in fact, any amount).
Any “guarantee” of a specific result. Qualified attorneys and immigration representatives know that each case is unique and that there is never an absolute “guarantee” that the applicant will receive a green card or any other immigration benefit that is being requested.
No explanation of the process or your eligibility is provided. Scam artists often simply promise that you will obtain a green card or work permit, requesting individual pieces of information or documents without explaining how the process works or why you are eligible.
Communication contrary to how the government would do it. First of all, any official website or email address of the United States government must always end in “.gov”. If not, and the website or email address claims to be from the government, it is probably a scam. Similarly, USCIS will never call you to request information about your case.
Strange payments. Only a scammer could ask you to pay a government fee in a strange way, such as through Western Union, PayPal or even through an iTunes gift card . In fact, USCIS has clear payment instructions to present fees by check or money order made out to the “US Department of Homeland Security.” If you did not pay a required government fee with your application, USCIS will return your application for resending, but will never call or email you requesting payment. There are some specific circumstances where a credit card can be used to pay USCIS fees, but you will never be asked to do so by phone or email.
If you have been the victim of a scam or have been contacted by someone you consider to be a scammer, you should immediately report it to both your state authorities and the Federal Trade Commission.
If you receive a suspicious email, please do not reply, but re-send it to the USCIS Webmaster so they can investigate it.
Reporting an immigration scam will not affect your application, and can often be done anonymously. It’s the right thing, so that government officials can prevent scammers from attacking future victims.
You can avoid unscrupulous notaries and other immigration scams by being alert and using common sense. Doing so will help ensure that your immigration process runs smoothly, that you pay no more than is required, and that you successfully obtain permanent residence or some other immigration benefit for those who qualify under the law.