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Staying safe from immigration scammers

by | May 14, 2024

Immigration compliance is a significant risk area for businesses and individuals making cross-border moves. David Sapsted reports on the latest visa scams, what governments are doing to combat them and the issues employers need to be aware of.

A book translated into English only two years ago outlined dozens of scams and cons confronting migrants arriving in the United States. That might not sound terribly innovative at a time when scams directed at migrants and visa seekers across the world are proliferating. Except the original German language version of the book, ‘Modern Swindles’, was first published more than a century ago.

In the internet age, today’s scams are considerably more sophisticated than bogus matchmaking agencies in 1912 charging immigrants for promises of marriage to non-existent locals. Indeed, they are so much more advanced and numerous that they pose problems for governments worldwide.

A global problem

Rackets these days often focus on unregistered agencies charging fees to would-be immigrants – workers and students especially – for visas they never receive; and organisations contacting people who have already emigrated and offering them paid help to resolve visa problems which, in reality, do not exist.

The US Department of State’s Office of Visa Services recently warned the public “of a notable increase in fraudulent emails and letters” being sent to visa applicants. “The scammers behind these fraudulent emails and letters are posing as the US government in an attempt to extract payment from (visa) applicants,” said the department.

Last year, the EU launched an investigation into claims that Polish consulates had made thousands of dollars by issuing temporary work visas to migrants in Asia and Africa. And an Interpol investigation across 27 nations is continuing into organisations issuing bogus work visas to lure would-be migrants into human trafficking rings. 

In the spring, Supinder Singh Sian and Angel Skyers, solicitors at London law firm Lewis Silkin, reported that scams were an ongoing concern for businesses and individual users of the immigration system.

“Fraudsters are targeting both individual migrants and sponsors,” they said. “For example, a person may be asked to pay a deposit as proof of being able to support themselves in the UK; the Home Office will never ask for this. Fraudsters seek to gain access to personal details through contacting immigration system users by email, text, phone or in person.”

Meanwhile, the Asia Pacific Foundation (APF), a not-for-profit organisation focusing on Canada’s relations with Asia, recently warned that, with the number of Indian international students expected to reach 1.8 million worldwide by the end of this year, “participating in education opportunities abroad is not without risk, including various types of fraud”.

The APF added: “Common schemes include phishing scams, in which students are asked for personal details to resolve issues with their visas or imaginary fines, and ‘ghost consultants’, or unlicensed representatives, who offer admissions to potential students for high fees, then abandon victims after collecting funds.

“Earlier this year, two private Canadian colleges were involved in international student scams, allegedly misleading Indian students about admissions to college programmes. This points to a lack of sufficient institutional and government oversight throughout the recruitment and admissions processes for international students, particularly within private institutions.”

In fact, the problems for some Indian students in Canada have gone much deeper than that. Last year, about 700 of them faced being deported after the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) laid charges against an Indian national, currently living in British Columbia, for issuing false letters of admission from Canadian educational institutions. The students had all paid thousands of dollars for study visas through Education Migration Services, a firm located in Jalandhar, India.

This May, the Canadian parliament’s immigration committee called on Employment Minister Randy Boissonnault and Immigration Minister Marc Miller to testify on what the government was doing to clamp down on illegal job selling to immigrants.

The committee’s motion cited reports in the ‘Globe and Mail’ newspaper about jobs-for-sale scams in which international students and foreign workers are being illegally charged thousands of dollars by unscrupulous employers and consultants to get a job in Canada.

“Immigration consultants and lawyers, aware of the practice, say they fear the scams may get worse as international students, squeezed by recent changes to the postgraduate work-permit programme, will search for other ways to stay and work in Canada to rack up points to qualify for permanent residence,” according to the ‘Globe and Mail’.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, almost 200 employers have had their licences to hire migrants revoked or suspended – with another 167 remaining under investigation by the government’s Immigration New Zealand agency – because of potential work visa abuse.

According to the online information site VisaGuide.World, concerns were first raised about migrant workers from India, China and Bangladesh living in cramped and unsanitary conditions. “Local media reports noted that migrants claimed to have paid thousands of dollars for work visas, only to be left with little to no work.”

It is a scenario being repeated in too many nations the world over. In the UK, the government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said in its 2024 report that it was “extremely concerned about the exploitation of migrants and the abuse of the immigration system”, particularly when it came to visas in the social care sector.

The report said that fraud in the visa system for care workers – about 125,000 of whom arrived between 2021–23, each bringing an average of one dependant with them – was not only widespread, but also linked to child trafficking.

MAC cited the case of a company that supposedly ran care homes and sponsored visas for 498 workers even though it had not provided any services for months. The report also pointed to visa applicants who had paid thousands of pounds for forged documents and one who was charged £21,000 by their sponsoring company for a visa. A global response

The Interpol operation, Storm Makers II, which got underway last year, specifically targets human trafficking-fuelled fraud and “has revealed further evidence that the crime trend is expanding beyond Southeast Asia”.

In a statement, Interpol headquarters in Lyon said many of the 450 migrant smuggling hotspots raided last autumn were regularly used to traffic victims to “notorious” cyber scam centres. “Victims are often lured through fake job ads and forced to commit online fraud on an industrial scale, while enduring abject physical abuse.”

More than 280 individuals were arrested for offences such as human trafficking, passport forgery, corruption, telecommunications fraud and sexual exploitation. Another 239 migrant smugglers were arrested in Turkey alone.

“The human cost of cyber scam centres continues to rise,” commented Rosemary Nalubega, assistant director for vulnerable communities at Interpol. “Only concerted global action can truly address the globalisation of this crime trend. While the majority of cases remain concentrated in Southeast Asia, Operation Storm Makers II offers further evidence that this modus operandi is spreading, with victims sourced from other continents and new scam centres appearing as far afield as Latin America.”

Counties participating in the Interpol operation are Angola, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

The growing concern over migrant scams led to the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) issuing guidance in the spring on how firms’ HR staff could recognise and tackle human trafficking within their organisations.

But, as the experience in Canada has shown, students are often the target of scams. Last year, the US issued a record 140,000 student visas to Indians, “but a black market has emerged in recent years due to high demand for appointments,” according to PIE (Professionals in International Education) News. The PIE website reported in March on a growing trend of ‘scalpers’ monitoring appointment slots and booking them on behalf of students or selling them on for a fee, making it difficult for non-paying students to secure appointments.

Consequently, the US embassy in India has now announced anyone applying for a student visa must use his or her passport information when scheduling their consulate appointment, in a bid to “prevent fraud and abuse of the appointment system”.

According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), scams targeting students are among the most common swindles, sometimes involving fake colleges promising them an education in America for a fee. Other scams identified by USCIS involve bogus government officials using social media accounts; fee-charging agencies claiming to be able to assist in obtaining visas; fake companies offering job offers to hopeful immigrants; social media sites and emails posing to be from government agencies; and people pretending to be attorneys providing legal services for immigrants.

Natalie McQuilkin, legal writer at Virginia law firm, Eagan Immigration, said obtaining a US visa was 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 US – and scammers have turned this hope into a money-making scheme.”

The matchmakers conning German immigrants a century ago knew as much. And the tech-wise scammers of today know it even better.

Read about award-winning global mobility, leadership and education in the upcoming Summer issue of Think Global People magazine, which will reveal the teams and organisations being celebrated in the Relocate Think Global People Awards 2024. Secure your copy here.

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