No one ever calls me on my home line. I am not sure why I even have one. But sure enough one Saturday morning my home phone was ringing. As always, I ignored it. Probably a sales call, I thought. Ten minutes later the phone rang again so I glanced at the caller ID. It was a US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) number. Why was Immigration calling my home number? I wondered. When I answered, the person said he was “Kevin Smith” with USCIS. He said there was a security flag on my file which could result in my citizenship being revoked. I panicked for a moment. I had received my US citizenship two years ago. How could this have happened? What did Bri, my superstar of a paralegal, fill in on the forms? Had I mistakenly checked the wrong box and admitted I was a terrorist, Nazi sympathizer, or polygamist? The officer said he could correct the problem but needed to check some information at which point he asked for several key items to “verify my identity,” including my social security number. This was when the alarm bells really started going off. When I refused to give him the information “Kevin” became belligerent and threatening. The calmer I became, the angrier he became. I told him he would have to send me his requests in writing, as is normal for USCIS when they have a question or concern about my file and then I hung up.
Still a little worried, I Googled the number that called me and found several people with the same story. USCIS even has a warning about this on their blog.
Immigration scams come in many varieties and the goal is always to take money or identity information from often vulnerable people who are nervous or unsure about an immigration process or who don’t understand all the intricacies of immigration regulations. While I may be able to tell the difference since as an immigration attorney I deal with USCIS on a daily basis, many people may not. And it got me to thinking about all the various scams I had heard about over the years. As USCIS promises to start transitioning to paperless communications and processes, identifying an authentic communication from a scam will be more and more important. I hope this post will help foreign nationals tell the difference between an actual communication from USCIS and a scam.
"INS emailed me."
No, sorry they did not (unless it is an email from 2003, and even then pretty unlikely). Many websites and communications reference “INS” (Immigration and Naturalization Service) but that agency no longer exists and therefore any communication from “INS” after 2003 is fraudulent. INS was replaced in March 2003 by three organizations: USCIS, which grants immigration benefits; US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is responsible for investigative and enforcement functions; and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which is responsible for border security and immigration inspections. All three organizations are housed under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. Therefore, any correspondence regarding an immigration case will come from USCIS; moreover, while foreign nationals can sign up to receive automatically generated emailed case status updates, USCIS mainly communicates via postal mail and only in certain situations (premium processing cases, for example) may also use email.
"I went to USCIS.com and…"
I am going to stop you there. Unfortunately, that was not a government website. There are many imposter sites out there that appear to be affiliated with USCIS but are not. These sites often charge for immigration forms or require a fee to complete forms that are free. In reality, most, if not all government sites end in .gov. Look for the “.gov” on website and on emails as a way to distinguish between imposter sites. For example: USCIS has its own official website at www.uscis.gov, where foreign nationals can find lots of useful information including free fillable forms, instructions, and information about filing fees and processing times (almost negating the need for a lawyer but not quite).
In the United States, a Notary Public has the ability to witness the signing of important documents and to administer oaths. That is pretty much it. They also get to put fancy embossed stamps on papers to show they have done their job. Important skills to be sure but not quite what a foreign national might need to help with a complex immigration matter. Nonetheless, “Notarios” run rampant in the immigration field making all sorts of promises to help foreign nationals file immigration applications. This type of scam is so pervasive because, outside the US, especially in Latin American countries, “Notarios” are powerful attorneys with special legal credentials. Foreign nationals should be careful to use an immigration lawyer or an authorized representative to help with immigration matters, if they do need help.
"The other lawyer I spoke to said she could guarantee the approval of my case."
Brilliant! Let me give her my cases as well! Oh wait, that’s right, no one can guarantee a benefit for foreign nationals. It is not possible for a lawyer (or notario) to guarantee the issuance of a Green Card or visa even if they have a special higher fee to file the application. Moreover, if a lawyer or representative claims they can get a result faster than if the foreign national applied directly with USCIS, it is untrue (unless they know magic). While it is true that USCIS will expedite cases in very limited and emergent situations and one can file certain cases via premium processing (at the cost of $1225 paid to USCIS to issue a response in fifteen days), in neither of these cases will a lawyer or representative be receiving special treatment.
"USCIS called and asked me to pay a fee."
For a variety of reasons, it is very rare for an immigration official (or any government officials) to telephone or email a foreign national directly. (Sorry, USCIS, but we know you are very busy!). It is possible to identify a scam call because the caller will be deliberately vague and/or threatening; request personal information (social security number, passport number, or A-number); identify false problems with the foreign national’s immigration record; and ask for payment to correct the records. It is perfectly acceptable to hang up on these calls and block these numbers. Foreign nationals should absolutely never give out personal information or send money to such a caller. One huge red flag is it they ask for payment in some form, immediately. If foreign nationals really owe money to USCIS, they will receive an invoice and can verify its validity by calling USCIS. Victims of telephone scams like this should report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). FTC also has a good amount of information about telephone scams and telephone scammers’ techniques.
"I paid $150 to file my Diversity Visa lottery application."
Oh no, that was a scam! Once a year, there are 50,000 diversity visas (DVs) available via a lottery to persons meeting strict eligibility requirements and who come from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The application can be found at dvlottery.state.gov. While foreign nationals can hire attorneys to file a DV application on their behalf, many foreign nationals complete the simple form themselves. Important to note, there is no fee to file the application. There are websites claiming they can make it easier to enter the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, or increase the chances of winning the lottery, for a fee. This is a scam. During the window in which lottery winners are notified, foreign nationals often receive emails from various scammers (again, the .com ending to the emails are usually a tipoff) suggesting that they have won the lottery and to send payment immediately to hold the spot. While the Department of State does send emails to lottery winners, and winners of the lottery do then have to pay a visa fee, the valid emails usually include an invoice and a “.gov” site at which you can pay the fee. This type of scam is the trickiest to tell apart from the real thing but some careful reading of the email and a check of the entrant's status with the Department of State can help solve the mystery. The State Department also has a page on DV fraud. If foreign nationals are ever unsure about a communication from USCIS, the State Department, or a US Embassy or Consulate, it is also advisable to check with a qualified and experienced immigration attorney.
Scams can obviously be quite effective, especially in the often nerve-wracking and confusing world of immigration law. As an immigration attorney myself, I am aware of how USCIS operates and the mere fact that a scammer was able to make me question even just for a second whether my citizenship was in doubt shows how powerful and persuasive they can be. One interesting way I read about to handle persistent scammers is to buy a whistle and blow it loudly into the receiver. While I certainly don’t advocate this type of behavior, I have to admit I do find this option tempting. Or perhaps I will finally get rid of that home phone.
UPDATE (March 17, 2015): Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) has issued an alert about a possible new scam targeting non-citizens. In this scam, impostors claiming to work for ICE's Detention and Information Line (DRIL) have contacted individual non-citizens claiming that there are "issues with their immigration cases" and requested that money be sent in to correct the situation. As the alert notes: "ICE's DRIL operators do not make outbound calls or ever request money from individuals." If foreign nationals have questions about any calls from individuals claiming to be from ICE (or any government agency), they should consult their immigration attorney, and if fraud is suspected to also notify ICE.