Posted by Hanlon Law Group, PC on 03/25/2016

An Essential Guide to Avoiding Immigration Fraud Scams

An Essential Guide to Avoiding Immigration Fraud Scams

When people need help and are willing to spend money to get it, scam artists tend to come out of the woodworks, attempting to con such people out of their money to make a quick buck.

In the realm of immigration issues and cases, this type of fraud can be particularly distressing and alarming, as foreign nationals may have limited financial resources, as well as a limited understand of the English language and the U.S. immigration system. This combination of factors can make immigrants seeking a status change in the U.S. easy targets for devious scam artists.

Although the possibility of being victimized by an immigration fraud scam can be scary, there is good news. And that lies in the fact that, with a little bit of knowledge, foreign nationals can identify the signs of immigration fraud and take the right actions to avoid being victimized by these schemes.


Top 5 Most Common  Immigration Fraud Scams in the U.S.

Before delving into some helpful tips for spotting and avoiding immigration fraud scams, it’s first important to understand how these scams are most commonly perpetrated. According to authorities at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the top five most common types of immigration fraud scams1 include:

  1. Phone scams, whereby a con artist will call a foreign national asking for some personal information and/or payment information – With these scams, it’s common for scammers to present wrong information, asking potential victims to “clarify” or “update” the information so their case or filing can proceed.

  2. Online scams, which tend to involve either email scams (which can be similar to phone scams but with the point of contact being via email) and/or fake websites modeled to look affiliated with USCIS (when they are, in fact, not)

  3. Visa lottery scams, whereby a con artist will contact foreign nationals (usually via email) to inform them that they have “won” a visa in some lottery

  4. Job offer-related scams, which tend to involve promises of jobs in the U.S. in exchange for some upfront payment from a foreign national

  5. Public notary scams, whereby public notaries may present themselves as immigration lawyers or professionals in an attempt to con foreign nationals out of money – These types of scams are typically aimed at Latin American individuals, as “notarios” can be legal authorities in South American countries (while the same does not necessarily hold up in the U.S.).


7 Tips to Reduce  Your Risk of Being Victimized by an Immigration Fraud Scheme

Now that you know how immigration fraud scams are most commonly perpetrated, here are some of the most effective ways to protect yourself from being taken by one of these scams.


Tip 1: Never pay for  free immigration forms.

USCIS never charges for any of its forms. In fact, these forms are available for free at the USCIS website.2

So, if you are asked to pay a fee to download or obtain a USCIS form to petition for an immigration status change in the U.S., take that as a red flag that you may be dealing with a scam artist. Making people pay for free forms is often related to scam operations; and, at the very least, it indicates that a professional or company may be unethical and that they will likely not look out for your best interests moving forward.


Tip 2: Be  suspicious of points of contact that come via phone or email.

USCIS (as well as the Department of Homeland Security) will NOT call you or email you if or when there may be an issue with your status change request. Instead, these authorities will usually send you a letter via standard mail, explaining the issue(s) and the required action(s) to rectify it.

If you do get called or emailed by some “authority” or “professional,” do NOT disclose any of your personal information to the party who has contacted you before verifying whether or not they are really who they say they are. It can be helpful in these situations to ask for a phone number to call back at a later time; scammers will not usually be able (or willing) to provide a number and have you call them back later.


Tip 3: Always  thoroughly read immigration-related forms – and make sure you understand them –  before signing them.

Whenever you may be asked to sign a form related to your immigration case, make sure you fully read that form so that you know exactly what you are signing. Your signature can provide powerful legal authorization to a person or a business, and if you end up signing a form that isn’t properly completed, you could:

  • Put that control in the hands of a scam artist
  • Inadvertently perjure yourself (which could cause your immigration application or petition to be denied).

Additionally, in the spirit of this tip:

  • Never sign a form you don’t understand. If necessary, get a translator to help you understand what a form is requesting and what your signature on that form can mean moving forward.
  • Never sign a blank form, as that can give a scam artist or unethical business the opportunity to complete the form with erroneous information on your behalf, possibly harming you in various ways.


Tip 4: Be weary of  services that require you to pay cash.

USCIS does NOT accept cash as payment for its filing fees. Instead, this agency only accepts money orders, credit cards or certified checks.

Therefore, if you are being asked by a service or person to provide cash in order to file your forms with USCIS, do NOT place your trust in the hands of this business or person. This is likely a sign that you are dealing with an immigration fraud scam.

Similarly, be cautious about making sizeable up-front payments before a professional or service has ever provided you any with help.


Tip 5: Double  check a professional’s credentials.

If you are considering hiring a certain professional or company to help you with your immigration case, take the time to double check that person’s (or business’) credentials with the appropriate agency. While the state bar association can be a good place to verify attorneys’ credentials, the Better Business Bureau is often a good resource when you need to check on a company’s credentials and reputation.

If you are thinking about working with a non-attorney, make sure the individual whom you are considering working with is recognized by the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals.3

If, after completing these checks, you find out that a person (or organization) does not have the licenses, reputation and/or credentials that (s)he (or it) has claimed to possess, take that a sign that you are more than likely dealing with an immigration fraud scam.


Tip 6: Keep copies  of everything.

This is a good tip for anyone applying for an immigration status change in the U.S. – and especially for people who are focused on avoiding scams.

In fact, when it comes to your immigration-related filings and documents, it’s strongly advised that you:

  • Never hand over any of your important immigration documents to any individual or company without first making copies for yourself. Depending on what the specific documents are, you may want to retain the originals and provide the copies to the third party.
  • Retain any and all correspondence you receive from USCIS (or other legitimate authorities) regarding your immigration case.

If you are informed, during your immigration case, that don’t need to make copies or keep certain documents, be suspicious, as this can be misleading advice from a con artist who is only trying to take your money and/or steal your identity.


Tip 7: Get a  second opinion.

If you ever have a question about what a so-called professional has told you – or if you think that you may have been given some bad advice regarding your immigration case, one of the smartest things you can do to get some clarity is to seek a second opinion.

Reputable professionals who are interested in helping you will generally provide you with preliminary advice about your case for free, and they can help you figure out if you may be in the crosshairs of an immigration fraud scam.


Avoiding Immigration  Fraud Scams: The Bottom Line

When it comes to protecting yourself against immigration fraud scams, the bottom line is that:

  • Investing some time upfront to research the professionals and/or organizations you may want to hire can go a long way to helping you identify whether any of these parties may be known for running immigration scams.
  • If you receive news about your immigration case/status that seems “too good to be true” (like “winning” some lottery), be suspicious, and do some more investigating – especially if you are contacted via phone or email (which is not how immigration authorities will usually reach out to people).
  • Working with an experienced immigration lawyer can be pivotal to avoiding scams and favorably resolving your important immigration issues.


Full Disclosure

The information in this article is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice.

If you are in need of professional advice and/or representation regarding any immigration issues and you happen to be located in California, you are encouraged to contact the Hanlon Law Group for more information about your rights and options.


References

1: USCIS, Common Immigration Scams - https://www.uscis.gov/avoid-scams/common-scams

2: USCIS Forms - https://www.uscis.gov/forms

3: U.S. Department of Justice’s Recognition & Accreditation Program - https://www.justice.gov/eoir/recognition-and-accreditation-program

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