Common Scams Targeting Immigrants & How to Avoid Them
- Individual Immigration
by Natalie McQuilkin
There are a variety of motives regarding the desire of many to obtain legal status in the United States. For example, they want to be reunited with their family, to find better jobs, or to escape the violence or poverty of their native countries. But the journey of obtaining legal status is no easy feat. It’s a complicated journey dotted with many obstacles, like costly immigration services, long processing times, and preparations for nerve-wracking interviews. Throughout this complex process lies a hope that there would be an easier way to live a safe, comfortable life in the U.S. – and scammers have turned this hope into a money-making scheme.
The history of scammers targeting immigrants
For decades, scammers have preyed on immigrants hoping to create a secure life in the United States by promising their business will help immigrants bypass the costly immigration services and long wait times. These scammers pose as professionals who you can trust, but in reality, they’re funneling your money directly into their pockets.
The bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed in in 1986, and according to Immigration History, this bill was a “multi-pronged system that provided amnesty for established residents, increased border enforcement, enhanced requirements of employers, and expanded guestworker visa programs.”1 Nearly 3 million people were received legal status from IRCA, but the bill also led to an explosion of scams.
According to Juan Manuel Pedroza’s study, Making noncitizens’ rights real: Evidence from immigration scam complaints, after IRCA was passed, there was a “surge in demand for legal services,” and “given the large number of immigrants looking to adjust their status, trained legal professionals could not meet the rising demand.” As a result, “community organizations, ‘lay lawyers,’ and notaries each played a pivotal role in helping immigrants prepare for IRCA,” according to the study.
Unfortunately, none of these people who posed as qualified professionals was actually legally qualified to help immigrants obtain status. The most prominent scammers during this time period were “notarios.” In Spanish, this word means “notaries,” and Pedroza explains in his article that “clients unfamiliar with U.S. law typically assume that notaries know best, in part because ‘notario’ is a false cognate commonly understood in Latin America as a seasoned lawyer.”2 As a result, immigrants put their trust in people who they thought were lawyers, only to find out that they had spent thousands of dollars for nothing.
What types of scams happen now?
Scammers have become more innovative in targeting immigrants in recent years due to social media. In the 2010s, Oswaldo Rafael Cabrera posed as an immigration attorney on his social media accounts, advertisements, and even in interviews for Spanish-speaking news sources, according to the Los Angeles Times.3 His business promised immigrants green cards and U.S. citizenship, but in reality, it scammed immigrants out of thousands of dollars. The State of California Department of Justice reported that in 2017, Cabrera was charged with grand theft, attempted perjury, and conspiracy to violate the Immigration Consultants Act. He was sentenced to five years in prison.4
Sadly, Cabrera’s scheme is not the only one that has stolen thousands of dollars in savings from immigrants. The U.S. Attorney’s Office – District of Nevada found that in 2015, an Arizona man named Douglas Thayer created a business called U.S. Adult Adoption Services Inc. that promised a direct pathway to U.S. citizenship when U.S. citizens adopted adult immigrants. Thayer specifically targeted Asian and Latino immigrants and made more than $1 million from his scheme.5 A man named Helaman Hansen created a similar scam that unfolded in seven different states, according to CBS Sacramento. His business, Americans Helping America Chamber of Commerce, preyed upon Pacific Islander, Southeast Asian, and Latino immigrants by promising that once a U.S. citizen adopted them, they would become citizens a year later.6 Once a year had passed, those who had bought into the scam realized that these promises were just lies.
Certain scams can create a huge emotional toll on immigrants because they can involve the intimate aspects of their lives, too. For years, Marcialito Biol Benitez, a Philippine national who lived in Los Angeles, operated a business that arranged marriages for immigrants and “staged fake wedding ceremonies,” according to CBS Los Angeles. His company rented out wedding venues and even hired ministers to conduct the ceremonies to make the clients believe the marriages and ceremonies were legitimate. Benitez also “prepared and submitted false petitions, applications, and other documents to substantiate the sham marriages and secure adjustment of clients’ immigration statuses.” Benitez demanded his clients pay roughly $30,000 in cash, and over the course of six years, Benitez acquired more than 600 clients.7
Benitez’s scam also exploited the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which is a self-petition for undocumented men and women who have been abused by their U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse. According to the District of Massachusetts’ U.S. Attorney’s Office, “Benitez’s agency would assist certain clients – typically those whose spouses became unresponsive or uncooperative – with obtaining green cards under [VAWA] by claiming the undocumented clients had been abused by alleged American spouses.” Benitez’s company submitted fraudulent applications that included temporary restraining orders “based on fabricated domestic violence allegations.”8 In April 2023, Benitez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and immigration document fraud.9
Some of the most concerning schemes are those that require a client to falsely report a crime, which could create legal issues for them. This type of fraud has been found in businesses that encourage clients to pursue the U visa, which is designed for victims of a U.S-based crime and who report the crime to police. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota found that in 2019, Yuridia Hernandez Linares planned a fake robbery and demanded her clients make false reports to police, stating that they were victims of the robbery. They victims were to corroborate the other stories. Linares even cut the clients with something sharp to look as if they had been attacked during the “robbery.” She charged each of the clients $2,000 for the scheme. In 2020, Linares was charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud.10
It’s important to note that not all cases of immigration fraud are this extreme. Scams can be something as simple as someone impersonating a USCIS officer by using an email that looks legitimate. Scams can also look like receiving a job offer from a company that seems real.
What are the most common scams?
As of February 2023, the Common Scams webpage on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website identifies the following as the most common scams that target immigrants:
- Government impersonators – These scammers pretend they are USCIS officials and often contact immigrants through fake USCIS social media accounts.
- Misleading offers of support – The scams involve people reaching out to immigrants to promise to be their petitioner in the United States in exchange for money or personal information.
- Scams targeting Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, Venezuelan, and Afghan nationals – Scammers promise to help these foreign nationals get to the U.S. “quickly” in exchange for money and personal information.
- Job offers – Fake companies send emails to immigrants promising them a job in the U.S. They typically demand personal information or money before providing immigrants the job in question.
- Fake USCIS and U.S. government social media and emails – There are several social media pages, websites, and email accounts that pose as USCIS or U.S. government accounts when they are not.
- Notarios públicos – These people pose as attorneys to provide legal services for immigrants, but they are not authorized to do so.
- Claims that you’ve won the Diversity Immigrant Visa lottery – This scam impersonates USCIS and sends immigrants emails stating that they have won the visa lottery. In reality, the U.S. Department of State manages the Diversity Immigrant Visa, not USCIS, and the Department only sends letters – not emails – if you have been selected.
- Scams targeting students – Fake colleges or universities target immigrants by promising them a U.S. education for a fee.
- Promising “special connections” to the government – These scammers pretend to have “special connections” to USCIS, and because of that, they “guarantee” that immigrants will quickly receive a green card or work permit by paying a fee.11
How do I protect myself from immigration scams?
Because scammers have been extorting immigrants for decades, it’s understandable to feel hesitant to trust someone to take on your case. However, there are several important tips that you can keep in mind to protect yourself and your family from scams:
- Ensure you’re in contact with an accredited organization or licensed attorney. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), notarios, accountants, and consultants are not legally allowed to provide help for obtaining legal status. Instead, you can find a legitimate organization or attorney by checking the FTC’s list of recognized organizations and accredited representatives and these lists from the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
- Watch out for fake government websites. All legitimate U.S. government websites end in “.gov.” Additionally, you should never have to pay to download immigration forms because all USCIS immigration forms are free.
- You should never have to pay to enter the Diversity Visa Lottery. This lottery is free, opens once a year, and winners are chosen randomly. The FTC explains that “scammers try to trick people by charging them money to apply for the program, promising them special access, or promising to increase their chances of winning the lottery.” The only website where you can apply for the Diversity Visa Lottery is https://dvprogram.state.gov/.
- You should never pay for immigration services with a gift card, money transfer, payment app, or cryptocurrency. The FTC reports that there are several scams that target refugees, saying there are “special government grants” that they can apply to, but they demand payment through one of these forms in order for the refugee to apply. There are no “special government grants” available, like the scammer claims.12
I think I’ve been scammed – what do I do now?
After spending thousands of dollars and getting nothing in return, many immigrants have to ask themselves a hard question: What now?
If you have been a victim of a scam, you should report the issue to the FTC at http://www.reportfraud.ftc.gov/ and also contact local or state authorities.
If you paid a scammer with a credit card, gift card, payment app, or wire transfer, contact the company for the corresponding payment method. If you sent cash through the mail, you can contact the postal service as soon as possible to try to prevent the money from being sent to the scammer. If you gave a scammer your personal information, like your social security number, contact the FTC’s identify theft website.13
You can trust Eagan Immigration
Eagan immigration was created a decade ago by attorney Lauren Eagan out of her compassion for the migrant community and playing a role in their success. Our company is comprised of 10 attorneys from all over the United States that have a variety of experience and that have worked on unusual and complicated cases. Since its creation, our business has worked with more than 1,800 clients, and we have won several awards for our work, such as being ranked number four in the legal sector for the country’s fastest-growing companies.
Eagan Immigration is here to guide you through your case, whether you are seeking to obtain legal status through VAWA, a T visa, or a U visa. We also provide many other humanitarian and business immigration services. Give our client care team a call at (202) 709-6439 or schedule a consultation today.
Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) (1986), Immigration History, Immigration and Ethnic History Society, 2019, Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) (1986) – Immigration History.
Juan Manuel Pedroza, Making noncitizens’ rights real: Evidence from immigration scam complaints, LAW AND POLICY, pg. 46, University of Denver, 2022, Making noncitizens’ rights real: Evidence from immigration scam complaints (wiley.com).
Jon Healey, Immigration scams are rampant. Here’s how to avoid getting taken, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 17, 2023, How to avoid immigration scams – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com).
Jury Convicts Arizona Man for Fraudulent Citizenship Scheme Targeting Immigrant Population, U.S. Attorney’s Office – District of Nevada, Apr. 20, 2022, District of Nevada | Jury Convicts Arizona Man For Fraudulent Citizenship Scheme Targeting Immigrant Population | United States Department of Justice.
Feds Charge Sacramento Man In Sevent-State Immigration Scam, CBS Sacramento, Feb. 11, 2016, Feds Charge Sacramento Man In Seven-State Immigration Scam – CBS Sacramento (cbsnews.com).
Man pleads guilty to large-scale marriage fraud scheme, CBS Los Angeles, Sept. 27, 2023, Man pleads guilty to large-scale marriage fraud scheme – CBS Los Angeles (cbsnews.com).
KCAL News Staff, Man pleads guilty to large-scale marriage fraud scheme, CBS Los Angeles, Sept. 27, 2023, Man pleads guilty to large-scale marriage fraud scheme – CBS Los Angeles (cbsnews.com).
Woman Orchestrated Scheme To Obtain U Visas, Charged With Visa Fraud, U.S. Attorney’s Office – District of Minnesota, Feb. 3, 2020, District of Minnesota | Woman Orchestrated Scheme To Obtain U Visas, Charged With Visa Fraud | United States Department of Justice.
Common Scams, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Feb. 21, 2023, Common Scams | USCIS, (last visited: Dec. 14, 2023).
How To Avoid Immigration Scams and Get Real Help, Federal Trade Commission – Consumer Advice, Nov. 2023, How To Avoid Immigration Scams and Get Real Help | Consumer Advice (ftc.gov), (last visited: Dec. 14, 2023).
What To Do if You Were Scammed, Federal Trade Commission – Consumer Advice, July 2022, What To Do if You Were Scammed | Consumer Advice (ftc.gov), (last visited: Dec. 14, 2023).