Immigration fraud, as the name suggests, is immigration legal services-related scams that prey on vulnerable immigrants. It can be committed by both attorneys and non-attorneys, according to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA). It is sometimes conducted in combination with other types of fraud, including phone scams and impersonation threatening immigrants with deportation. Immigration fraud has serious repercussions for both the perpetrators and their victims.
This article will introduce you to common immigration scams and resources for you after encountering suspected scams.
Who are the targets of immigration fraud?
Criminals often target recent immigrants currently seeking citizenship or residency in the United States, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. New to the country, these immigrants are often not familiar with credible community organizations and legal resources, so they are more prone to be preyed upon.
However, that doesn’t mean longtime immigrants are immune to immigration fraud. Baoqin Wang is the managing attorney at the Law Office of Baoqin Wang who came to the country from China nearly three decades ago. She experienced immigration fraud herself late last year and sometimes receives cases of immigrants who came to the U.S. for a long time but still got scammed.
What are some common immigration scams?
Scammers often appeal to human emotional factors, including curiosity, greed and fear, to lead immigrants into traps, said Ying Cao, managing partner at Ying Cao Law LLC, admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey.
MOIA points out that fraudulent immigration assistance providers often make false promises, including:
- An easy and quick way to obtain a work permit, visa or green card
- No risks or consequences are involved
- They have special influence with immigration authorities
Attorney Cao also warns against claims like the above that are “too good to be true.”
10-year visa or hardship scams
The 10-year visa does NOT exist. If a lawyer promises a 10-year visa as a pathway to legal permanent residency, they are suggesting a two-step process involving a meritless asylum application. This is likely to put the immigrant in deportation proceedings and the cancellation of removal process.
Cancellation of removal may allow undocumented immigrants in removal proceedings to obtain a green card if they satisfy the following requirement:
- Continuously lived in the United States for a minimum of 10 years before the initiation of the immigration proceedings
- Have no criminal record
- Have a green card holder or U.S. citizen spouse, parent, or child who would suffer exceptional or extremely unusual hardship if the undocumented immigrant was deported from the U.S.
The “Cancellation of Removal” process, however, is extremely risky and difficult to win. The scammer may not inform you that by appearing in a removal proceeding, you risk deportation if you lose.
Immigration judges have the sole discretion to grant cancellation of removal whether or not you meet the statutory requirements.
There are reports that scammers pretend to be U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to approach individuals and claim that they have been involved in criminal activities or risk deportation. Some scammers even provide their fake identity and arrest number of the immigrant. They are often likely to demand the immigrant not to discuss the situation with anyone else, including their friends and family members. Immigrants may transfer money or give out their personal information to criminals as told out of fear. Real government agents will never ask for money or threaten detainment or deportation and will only contact you through official government channels, not your personal social media accounts.
Phone scams targeting Chinese speakers
Similar to the previous scam, some scammers call from numbers appearing to originate from mainland China and leave Mandarin voicemails and claim they are from the Chinese embassy, consulates, or law enforcement authorities. They may ask you to pick up packages or ask for your bank information so that you can avoid issues with your legal status or an arrest the next time you visit China.
Chinese immigrants or people with Chinese last names are the targets. The incoming phone number for these scams may resemble the victim’s own number or the Chinese Embassy’s actual number, (212) 244-XXXX. Scammers sometimes also use WeChat and email to contact you. Again, please note that the Chinese Embassy is not a law enforcement agency and will not notify you to handle any case or ask for your personal information or money.
Illegitimate immigration service providers
Immigrant service providers can help you with clerical tasks like translating documents or filling out immigration paperwork, gathering documents (like a birth certificate or school records), typing up application forms (but not giving advice on how to answer questions), arranging for photographs or medical tests and helping you prepare for English language or civics tests, Michael Lanza, the spokesperson for the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, responded to Documented’s request in an email.
They are obliged to:
- Provide you with a contract in English and your native language that includes a thorough description of the services they will provide for you and the costs they will bill you. The contract also needs to specify the name, telephone number and address of the service provider. The agreement may be canceled whenever you want
- Clearly state on signs that they are not attorneys and cannot provide you with legal advice
- Give you a copy of any paperwork submitted to the government
- Return any original documents belonging to you
- Give you a free copy of your file upon request
However, according to New York State law, they are not allowed to:
- Provide legal counsel
- Threaten you
- Promise special favors
- Represent you in a case pending before the USCIS, the Executive Office for Immigration Review’s immigration courts (EOIR), the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), or the Department of Labor
- Ask you to provide false information to immigration authorities
- Charge you for a reference to a person who can assist or represent you
Demand cash for services never provided
Some service providers make promises to assist you in exchange for cash but never do the job after receiving payment. This scam is compounded by the fact that many immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, may lack access to bank accounts and pay in cash without having a receipt.
Job offer scams
Be cautious about companies offering a job in the U.S. from overseas or by email. If you receive a suspicious job offer via email before arriving in the U.S., it may be a scam, especially if you are asked to pay money to accept the offer. Make sure the company is legitimate when you see job postings on social media before sharing your personal information. Even if the offer is legitimate, you cannot work here unless you have a green card, an EAD or an employment-related visa allowing you to work for a particular employer. Click here to read more.
If you are already on a student visa in the U.S., consult the international student office at your school before taking any job.
What to do to avoid being scammed
Immigration fraud sometimes works in combination with other types of fraud, including “pig butchering” and identity theft. So it is crucial to protect your identity and avoid disclosing personal information to unknown individuals.
- Ask for proof that the person providing you with legal service is a licensed attorney or accredited by the Department of Justice (DOJ)
- Get a second opinion
- Go to legal service providers that have a physical location
- Ask for a written agreement describing the services to be provided and signed by the provider, read the agreement before signing it, and keep it for future needs
- Keep copies of documents prepared for you
- Ask for a written receipt including the name and address of the service provider
- Emails appearing to be legitimate but are from unfamiliar senders
- Emails containing spelling errors and typos
- Emails or websites not ending in .gov, and end in, for example, .net, .org, .com or.info
- suspicious emails that you don’t typically get
- Offers of assistance to accelerate your case in exchange for money
- Promises of quick benefits
- Opening or downloading attachments from unfamiliar senders
- Pay for government application forms – forms are free and can be downloaded at http://www.uscis.gov/forms
- Give original documents – give copies instead
- Sign blank or incomplete forms
- Sign immigration forms or contracts that you do not fully understand
- Answer requests appearing to be from USCIS to pay fees in a way other than through your myUSCIS account
In addition, both Attorney Cao and Attorney Wang warn against providing any personal information via phone calls. If you have received any suspicious emails, messages or phone calls, they suggest that you take all means to verify it with official government agencies. To do so, you can request the sender or caller to mail you physical copies of any documents they mentioned and ask them what their official telephone number is and where their physical office is. If in doubt, check with a lawyer or attorney accredited by the DOJ.
Where to go after being scammed?
Being scammed can be a source of distress, especially for recent immigrants. The city, state and federal government provide a range of resources where you can seek help. When seeking out an attorney, don’t solely focus on the good reviews as they sometimes can be fake. Check out the bad reviews of a lawyer to see if there are recurring patterns. You can also go to Avvo to find lawyers and check out their reviews.
The DOJ has a list of pro-bono legal services and a roster of accredited representatives with their recognized organizations. The roster is sorted in alphabetical order of the representatives’ last names.
The American Bar Association has information about finding an attorney in your state.
ONA Hotline 800-536-7636: free, available from Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in over 200 hundred languages. Hotline experts assist eligible immigrants in connecting with a team of experienced immigration lawyers and technical legal assistance to immigrant service providers across NYS.
ActionNYC provides safe, free immigration legal screenings in your community, in your own language. Call them at 800-354-0365. You can also call 311 and say “ActionNYC.” Services are available between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Check out Documented’s guide on pro-bono lawyers and free immigration services for Chinese New Yorkers.
In general, Attorney Cao recommends that you go to lawyers whose information, including names, profile photos, telephone number, email and physical office addresses, are all available online.
How do I report a case?
If you suspect that there is misconduct by a USCIS employee, follow the instructions on this page.
You can also report scams to the Federal Trade Commission.
Report the scam to the Department of State’s Division of Consumer Protection (DCP). The helpline, 800-697-1220, is available Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding state holidays.
Go to your local police precinct to file a police report. Services are available in multiple languages, including Mandarin.
The five borough district attorney’s offices in NYC also have their helplines:
- Manhattan district attorney immigrant affairs helpline: 212-335-3600
- Bronx district attorney immigrant affairs unit: 844-590-SCAM (7226) [email protected]
- Brooklyn district attorney immigrant affairs unit: 718-250-3333 or submit the Immigrant Fraud Complaint form to [email protected]
- Queens district attorney frauds bureau: 718-286-6673; [email protected]
- Staten Island district attorney scams hotline: (718) 556-7226 (SCAM); [email protected]
I’m an undocumented immigrant and have been a victim of immigration fraud, can I still report the case?
Yes! You can file a complaint with DCWP online at nyc.gov/dcwp or by calling 311 if you believe your rights have been violated.
You may also contact the New York Police Department, which does not ask about the immigration status of crime victims, witnesses, or other people who ask for help.