January 20, 2017

Avoid Immigration Scams in the US

In pre-departure cross culture training programs, we talk to prospective business travelers to the U.S. about immigration scams; how to avoid being scammed and what to do about it. 

Note that all advice in this blog is not to be substituted for legal advice. If you need immigration legal assistance in the U.S. get in touch with a bona-fide immigration attorney. For career professionals, contact your human resources representative in your company or if you are a student, contact your International Student Adviser. 

In this post, I will share with you tips on handling these calls, case studies of actual calls I have heard about, and videos educating us more on various U.S. immigration scams or concerns you should be aware of. 

What Scammers May Ask For:

  • Money to renew visas
  • Money to pay for immigration forms (which are typically free)
  • Complete forms they started filling out (possibly to get identifying information) 
  • An email (from a dot com email ID) request to update/finish filling out forms and paying for processing over the phone. (Example: As of June 2017, a few instances of scammers emailing international students in Iowa and Wisconsin asking them to finish filling out i-797c forms via email and submit payment by phone.) 
  • Other


Tips On Handling Immigration – Related Scam Calls or Contacts

General Tips:
  • Immigration officers, police officers and other representatives will NOT call your house to ask you for money. 
  • Avoid all unauthorized cash transactions. Do not meet anyone in banks, convenience stores, gas stations or drug stores in the U.S. to hand over money. 
  • Do NOT give your personal immigration details, ID (passport or visa numbers, social security numbers, US driver license numbers, bank account numbers, etc.) through unofficial channels. Immigration website and email IDs end with .gov (see video below for more information). 
  • Immigration officers will not contact you at home, on your cell phone/mobile, through text messages, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc. 
  • Avoid talking about your immigration status in public. 
  • Do not share images of your passport or visa on social media or through email / forwarded messages / WhatsApp. 
  • Never sign immigration forms that are blank. Read all the information filled in the form before signing it. 
  • Always keep copies of forms you submit. 
  • Don’t let anyone keep your important documents. Scammers often demand money as ransom to give those documents back. 
  • More tips on avoiding being scammed at the Federal Trade Commission site.

Avoid Engaging in Scam Calls or Contacts
  • In India it is common to answer any call without knowing the origin of the number or who exactly is calling. It is also common to take calls on the run without maybe really paying full attention to who one is speaking with. This can cause a situation where the call starts out quite innocently then quickly turns serious.
  • Try to avoid answering calls in the U.S. from unknown numbers.  Registered U.S. phone numbers should render on your cell or mobile with the 10 digit number and a name above it. If it says ‘Unknown’ or doesn’t have a name attached to the phone number, it is wise not to answer such calls. 
  • There are cases where 1-800 phone numbers that look like legitimate calls from the US immigration service are fraud calls. See the Barclay Damon Immigration site for more information. 
  • Program your family’s, friend’s and US colleagues numbers into your phone with their name. This way when any of these people call you, you can see their name immediately come up on your phone’s caller ID. 
  • Missed calls. In India it is common for someone to give you a missed call you and you may call them back even if you don’t know who they are. Avoid this habit in the U.S. Also keep in mind Americans do not know the concept of missed call (at least not the same way it is used in India). 
  • Likewise, if you use Whatsapp, SMS, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram or any other social media or text based messaging software do not engage in text chats, instant messaging interactions or voice calls with unknown agents or even friends where sensitive immigration visa details and/or US ID information (such as social security, ATM card numbers, credit card numbers) are exchanged. Use only official channels to connect with immigration professionals.

What to do if you get a scam call?
  • If anyone claims to be calling you from USCIS, immigration, the local police or border control about your immigration status, hang up the phone.
  • If possible note down any phone number/name that comes up on your caller ID. (Though they will mask their actual number/name, note whatever you can.)
  • Report this to your HR representative at your company or whomever is handling your immigration case. When possible, report it to the police, as well. Another place to report is to the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov (or call 1-877-382-4357). (Information on reporting taken from this page.)
  • Warn your friends that a scam call has happened to you and be on alert to not talk to such people.

Case Studies – Identifying a Scam Call

Do you know anyone who has actually got a scam call?

I have met a few people who have personally got these calls, and also a few people who knew someone who got these calls. Hearing about these calls and then actually getting these calls are two totally different experiences. When we hear about these kinds of calls, many of us think, ‘Oh, this won’t happen to me! If I ever get a call like this, I won’t even talk to that person!” But, just think about our own phone answering behavior. When answering a mobile, we may be in a rush, we may be doing this while driving (do keep in mind talking on the phone while driving is a punishable offense in the U.S. and fined heavily), watching TV or even in business meetings. Basically, when we answer the call, we aren’t giving our full attention. So, we may only give our full attention after we “understand” the gravity of the call or hearing the assumed name/title/position of the person calling us. In such scam calls, this is too late to understand this as we will be sucked in to the call. The scammer has us where they want us. So, it’s best to avoid answering calls from numbers we don’t know or if we must answer these calls, assure we can give our full attention at the start to cut them off if he or she is indeed a scammer calling us.

Immigration Scam Call: Case Study 1 – Good Outcome
An Indian in the US answered their mobile. The call was an unknown number. The person calling introduced themselves as being from the local police station. The person answering the call was paying attention and talking to the “police officer.” After five minutes this officer asked the person to meet them at a local store to pay him a few hundred U.S. dollars to rectify their visa processing costs. The person from India knew they did not owe any money and got suspicious. The person asked the ‘police officer’ to be on hold. The person from India happened to have a room mate and told his room mate about this call. The roommate was aware of these scam calls and told them to disconnect the call without any further discussion. They reported this call to their HR representative. 

Immigration Scam Call: Case Study 2 – Not a Good Outcome
An Indian from a prominent company came to work in the U.S. for a few months. This Indian career professional was on a work visa sponsored by their company. This person also came to the U.S. alone and did not live in a place with other Indians. He was also not aware of these scams. One day he received a call. He talked to the person. In the first call the person did not ask for money, but built a rapport on the call. The person called a few weeks later, asking the Indian H1B holder to meet him at a Walgreens (drug store/pharmacy) to give him a few hundred dollars for some visa processing. The person from India met the man at Walgreens, took money out of his bank account and paid the man in cash. Like this, these unofficial money transactions at various locations (gas stations, grocery stores, banks, etc.) continued for several weeks, until the person from India was scammed out of US$10,000. Somehow, eventually he opened up and talked to someone about this, and stopped handing over the money.


Video Tutorials and Information About Immigration Scams

Immigration Scams: What to Know from the USCIS
The USCIS – the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is the official government sponsored agency that all immigration matters are directed through. Their website, email IDs, and online interactions end with dot gov. See their website at: https://www.uscis.gov.

Note, also in this video, they speak about "Notario" or "Notario Publico.” While these scams may be targeting Hispanics more than Indians, keep in mind that notaries in the U.S. do not provide legal advice. In India, notaries tend to be a lawyer that also acts as a notary. Often official documents are signed on stamp or bonded paper in India. This is not the case in the US. In the U.S. notaries are found in the HR offices of most companies or your bank. In the U.S. notaries are typically free, as well. Do keep in mind that laminated documents cannot be notarized in the U.S. 



Immigration Scams: How to Protect Yourself from Jessica Dominguez TV

Highlights or topics of discussion:
  • Immigration scams over social media
  • Text messages with request to return calls that sound official. While this video is geared more toward Hispanics in the U.S. similar scams could happen to anyone regardless of country of origin. As noted in the video:

    “Immigration officers will not pick up the phone and ask you to send money and threaten you with deportation. That is not how it works.”

  • Forms – USCIS forms are free - found online here. Do not pay anyone for filling out these forms. More importantly, do not sign blank forms. Some are charging for forms such as N-400. This and other forms are completely free for download from the USCIS site.
  • Books – Scammers will request you to buy special books to get quicker immigration processing.

While this video may stress elements for the Hispanic community, similar concerns are in the U.S. for people from India (and other countries) as well. These scams can target anyone whether on a work (H1B, H4, L1, L2, B1, B2 types), spousal, or student visa (F1, J1, M1 visa types).  (See more visa types here.) 

We want you to be safe. This post has attempted to cover some of the common immigration scams in the U.S. or in relation to U.S. visa types, how to avoid the scams and what to do if it happens to you. As noted in the start of this post, this post offers guidelines and is not intended to act in place of legal advice from a certified U.S. immigration attorney. If you need help or guidance on how to get bona fide legal advice, see the USCIS website

Feel free to share your experiences or feedback in the comments section below. 

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