Types of crooks
Immigration scams can immediately cost you money, have serious consequences for immigration, or lead to identity theft that can have long-term implications for your financial well-being.
Unfortunately, many factors make immigrants a common target for crooks. Many immigrants are concerned about the immigration process, are unsure whether they are eligible for green cards or other visas, and are unsure how the U.S. government does business. And many immigrants do not speak native English or know cultural standards in the United States.
If you are unsure whether someone claiming to be a US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is an impostor, please contact USCIS customer service at 800-375-5283.
There are scammers who attack immigrants at all stages of the immigration process. Here are some common scams and how to avoid them.
Notaries posing as lawyers
One of the most persistent immigration scams involves unqualified and unscrupulous individuals who offer to help immigrants file government paperwork for a high fee, but never submit the paperwork or claim immigration benefits for which their ‘customers’ do not qualify. because they often create more immigration problems for their victims.
A particularly misleading advertising tactic used by many of these individuals is to call themselves “notario”, “notario público” or “notary.” In Latin America and Europe, a ‘notary’ or notary often refers to someone with a high education and the equivalent of a license to practice the law. However, in the United States, a notary is someone who is simply licensed to see signatures and the designation has no specific educational requirements. So many scammers use terms like “notario” to impersonate a lawyer when in fact they have little or no legal training.
According to USCIS, there are only two types of “authorized immigration service providers” who are allowed to provide legal advice on your particular immigration case and communicate with USCIS on your behalf:
Authorized lawyers in good standing: if you choose to work with a lawyer, he or she must be licensed to practice the law by at least one state (see here) and must not appear on the list of lawyers Ministry of Justice (DOJ) with bad behavior lawyers (look here).
Accredited Non-Lawyers: Within DOJ, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) recognizes certain non-profit organizations that are allowed to provide legal services. Any non-lawyer within such an organization must appear on this DOJ list of accredited representatives.
Sources for finding authorized legal aid include the DOJ’s list of free (pro bono) immigration attorneys, this nonprofit of legal aid organizations, and the U.S. Immigration Lawyers Association lawyer search tool.
Even after checking that you are working with an authorized legal service provider, it is always a good idea to make sure you understand their process, timeline and fee structure before getting started.
Cheaters impersonating the government
The other major type of immigration scam is that people and websites impersonate government agencies, usually USCIS or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When imposters act as a USCIS or ICE officer, they often call, email, or visit the victim and tell him or her that there is a problem with his or her immigration status. The crooks will then offer to “fix” the problem for a fee. The scammers may wrongly threaten that failure to pay the fee will result in a visa application being refused or even expelled.
While this scam scam is often aimed at getting an instant payment, there are also scams that simply collect or “verify” personal information such as names, dates of birth, social security numbers and addresses – all of which can then be used to steal the victim’s identity.
Here are some specific scams that have been reported in recent years:
Phone Scams: The victim receives a call that appears to be from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hotline number or from a local USCIS office number, but the real phone number is hidden. In one version of this “spoofing” scam, the scammer says he or she is from “US Immigration” and asks for personal information or asks for payment. Remember that USCIS will not ask for personal information by phone and DHS never uses the hotline number for outgoing calls.
Deportation Threats: In an effort to cash in on the fear of deportation, fake ICE agents knock on the doors of immigrants, issue fake warrants, or accuse them on the street and threaten to deport them if they don’t pay hundreds or thousands of dollars. Real ICE agents don’t allow you to avoid arrest in exchange for money.
Diversity Visa Scam: The victim receives an email suggesting the U.S. Department of State claims that he or she has won the Diversity Visa Lottery. This scam usually asks the victim to send money through Western Union to “process the visa application” – which the real State Department would never do.
Scam websites: The victim is encouraged to file immigration documents and pay USCIS fees through a website with a logo and web address similar to official US government websites. These ‘copycat’ websites make immigrants believe they are paying a government contribution to USCIS when in fact the money goes to the scammers who manage the website. Scam websites also sometimes claim to file immigration forms directly with USCIS, leading victims to believe that their immigration documents are being processed by the government when they were never filed.
Spotting a scam: Fortunately, spotting immigration scams isn’t too difficult if you know what to look for. Here are some important signs that you are dealing with a scammer:
The news is too good to be true. For example, if other lawyers have said that you are not eligible for a green card, but they say this is not a problem, it could be a scam. Likewise, you cannot prevent deportation by paying ICE officials a few hundred dollars (or actually an amount).
Any “guarantee” of a specific result. Qualified immigration attorneys and representatives know that each case is unique and there is never an absolute “guarantee” that the applicant will get the green card or any other immigration benefit he or she seeks.
No explanation of the process or your suitability. Scammers often just promise to get you a green card or work permit, asking for individual pieces of information or documents without explaining how the process works or why you qualify at all.
Communicate in a way that the government would never do. First of all, any official U.S. government website or email address should always end with “.gov” – if not, and the website or email address is from the government, it’s probably a scam. Likewise, USCIS will never call you to request information about your case.
Foreign payments. Only a scammer would ask you in a strange way to pay a fee, such as through Western Union, PayPal or even an iTunes gift card. USCIS even has clear instructions for fees for paying by check or money order issued to “US Department of Homeland Security.” If you did not pay the required government fees with your application, USCIS will return your application to you for refill, but never call or email you for payment There are some specific circumstances where you can use a credit card to pay USCIS fees, but you should never be asked to do so by phone or email.
Report a scam
If you have been the victim of a scam or have been approached by someone you think is a scammer, report it immediately to both your state authorities and the Federal Trade Commission.
If you receive a suspicious email, do not respond to it, but forward it to the USCIS webmaster (USCIS.Webmaster@uscis.dhs.gov) for investigation.
Reporting an immigration scam does not affect your application and can often be done anonymously. It’s the right thing to do so that government officials can more effectively stop the scammers from targeting future victims.
You can avoid unscrupulous notaries and other immigration scams by being vigilant and using common sense. Doing so will ensure that your immigration process runs smoothly, that you do not pay more than necessary and that you successfully get the green card or other immigration benefits that you are legally eligible for.