Last Updated on September 7, 2023
Immigration and visa scams are common and costly. According to FTC data, there are between 400 and 700 documented immigration scams yearly.
That doesn’t sound like very much – not when there were over one million reports of identity theft in 2022 alone.
However, according to immigration experts such as Assistant Professor of Sociology Juan Manuel Pedroza, who authored the first nationwide study of immigrant scams, that number doesn’t reflect the true extent of the problem.
Many immigrants likely fail to report scams, either because they don’t know where to report the issue or fear that it will impact their immigration status.
Unfortunately, when you think about it, immigrants are excellent targets for fraudsters and thieves.
Whether you’re trying to immigrate into the country, currently living here on a visa, or have a family member who might make the move soon, understanding common immigration and visa scams is crucial.
In this article, I’ll explain the major scam types, red flags to avoid, and what to do if you become a scam victim. But first, let’s look at why immigrants are such easy targets for scam artists.
Why Immigrants Are Prime Targets
Moving is always stressful – even if you’re simply moving across town. Now imagine you’re going a whole lot further. Imagine crossing borders and entering a new country with a culture you don’t fully understand and a language you’re not quite fluent in.
That’s the battle many immigrants face.
To complicate matters, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) doesn’t make the process easy. There is a litany of forms to fill out, and the process can be lengthy, easily taking months or more.
All of these factors combined make new immigrants or those trying to immigrate to the United States targets for fraudsters.
Savvy scammers take advantage of people who don’t understand how the government normally conducts business, don’t fully understand the language, or aren’t familiar with the immigration process to steal money and identities. This is on top of the normal travel concerns many would have.
Common Immigration and Visa Scams
There are many types of immigration scams that the U.S. government is aware of. The most common include the following:
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1. Government Impersonators
In this scam, fraudsters impersonate USCIS government officials. They usually do this using non-government channels, like social media. A new immigrant or someone trying to immigrate could receive a message on Instagram or LinkedIn claiming to be from a UCIS official.
Sometimes, though, the scammers are smarter. They could use phishing sites or official-looking emails to try and outwit victims. These e-mails can even include official headings and appear to be from legitimate senders, such as news@UCIS.gov.
Still other times, scammers will appear at the immigrant’s home or work in person, dressed as “government officials.”
Regardless of how they make contact, the scammer will demand money. If the immigrant refuses to hand over the cash, they’ll make threats, including application denial and even deportation
Avoiding This Scam
First, understand that USCIS does not contact applicants or visa holders through social media channels. Also, know that ICE and USCIS agents will never ask for money to help you avoid deportation or arrest.
To avoid phishing or copycat websites, there are web-filtering tools available. These tools identify and block fake websites so you don’t give the wrong people your information (or money).
Finally, if you receive any questionable correspondence from USCIS (or a potential pretender), call their helpline at 800-375-5283 before responding. They’ll be able to tell you whether or not it’s a scam.
2. Visa Lottery
In this scam, someone hoping to gain a visa receives a fake notification that they’ve “won the visa lottery.” Typically, this notification comes via email or regular mail, asking the recipient to fill out a form providing more information.
The scammer uses this information to steal the victim’s identity and likely sell it on the dark web.
Avoiding This Scam
The U.S. Department of State runs the U.S. visa lottery, and they only inform winners via their entrant status check-in site. They never send emails or make phone calls. So, unless you saw that you won the lottery on their site, it’s a scam.
3. Misleading Support Offers
Many immigrants use Form-134A to show they have financial sponsorship when entering the U.S. Having a financial support sponsor can be helpful when trying to gain entry to the country, and that means many scammers are willing to provide this form for a price.
In this scam, a criminal will offer to be a financial sponsor and submit Form 134A in exchange for money, personal information, or other compensation (such as marriage or employment).
Avoiding This Scam
Know that a financial sponsor must be willing and able to show they can support an immigrant financially for at least two years and cannot require any repayment. If someone offers to sponsor you in return for something, even just your personal information, it’s not legal.
Also, know that the U.S. only accepts certain immigrants on financial sponsorship. As of this writing in 2023, these include certain Ukrainian, Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan immigrants only.
4. Job Offer Scams
Fraudsters often target students here on educational visas and people who want to immigrate to the U.S. with fake job postings. Sometimes these come in social media advertisements, but often they’re more specific, arriving as a personal e-mail or message on LinkedIn.
Typically, the scammers are looking for one of two things. They may want personal information that they can use to steal the victim’s identity or sell on the dark web. Or, they may be looking for money in the form of an “application fee.”
Avoiding This Scam
Doing basic research on the supposed company that offers you a job will help determine whether this is a legitimate offer.
Be extra wary if you receive the offer on LinkedIn, as this scam is prominent there. Look into the sender’s profile, and avoid sending money to anyone. Jobs typically don’t require fees to process applications.
Talk to your foreign student advisor about the offer if you’re a student. You’ll need to talk to them before you take any job to ensure it doesn’t invalidate your student visa, anyway.
5. TPS Scams
TPS or temporary protected status scams look like this.
TPS recipients have to re-register for TPS status after a certain time period. Scammers reach out to TPS recipients just before their paperwork is due and offer to file it for them, for a fee, of course.
In reality, the scammer never files the paperwork or is unqualified to do so, creating a huge mess for the TPS recipient to sort out.
Avoiding This Scam
Registering for TPS status can be complicated – the paperwork isn’t straightforward. However, TPS recipients do not need to pay someone to help. The USCIS office provides access to reliable and free or low-cost legal services on its site.
6. Notarios Publicos
This scam takes advantage of language and cultural differences.
The direct translation for notarios publicos is notary public. To Americans, that simply means someone who has taken a licensing exam and is able, by law, to witness and record signatures for official documents. To Latin Americans and Europeans, a notary public is a lawyer.
So, in this scam, American notaries offer to help immigrants and visa holders file the necessary paperwork for a fee. Of course, as American notaries, they don’t have the necessary knowledge or experience to file this paperwork or advise on immigration concerns.
So, if they file the paperwork at all, they tend to do so incorrectly, leaving a headache for the immigrant.
Avoiding This Scam
The Department of Justice (DOJ) provides a list of approved immigration lawyers that offer free or no-cost services. Use them rather than anyone advertising themselves as a notario publico.
7. Student Scams
Several types of scams target people studying on a student visa.
Sometimes, scammers will call or send intimidating emails to students already in the U.S. In these communications, the scammers pretend to be government officials and threaten to revoke the student’s visa if they don’t pay a fee.
Other times, fraudsters set up fake websites that look like university sites. They advertise these sites specifically to students outside of the country. Victims fill out applications that include personal information and may pay a hefty application fee.
Avoiding This Scam
If you’re a current international student, talk to your foreign student advisor if you receive any threatening calls or emails.
If you want to study in the U.S., check out the U.S. Homeland Security website. It provides a school search function that tells prospective international students whether a school or university is certified to accept them.
Look the school up there or download and cross-check the certified school list before filling out applications or paying any fees.
8. Pay to Jump the Line
There are many scam websites and businesses that offer to provide fast access to visas and work permits. They may claim to be experts who understand the process better than most. Alternatively, they may say they have government connections that allow them to “speed things up.”
In reality, these services steal would-be immigrants’ money and information but provide nothing in return.
Avoiding This Scam
Know that only the USCIS can control visa and work permit processing times. There is no way to speed up the process.
9. Form I-9 Scams
This scam targets employers, making it slightly different from the other scams on this list. Employers must fill out and keep a Form I-9 for every employee they hire, both citizens and non-citizens.
A criminal impersonates a USCIS official using a legitimate-looking email in this scam. In it, they’ll ask the employer to provide a copy of any non-citizen I-9s they have on file. The scammer uses this information to steal identities or target these people for other scams.
Avoiding This Scam
If your employer gives this information away, you cannot do much. USCIS never asks employers for I-9 forms, but if your employer doesn’t know that, they could easily fall for this one.
Red Flags To Watch For
All of these immigration and visa scams share a few common red flags. If you watch out for the following, you’re less likely to fall victim to any of them.
- If it’s too good to be true, it is. Obtaining a visa or going through immigration is a difficult process that takes a lot of patience and perseverance. If someone is offering a quick solution, it’s probably not real.
- Beware of guarantees. Immigration professionals know that they can’t ethically promise outcomes. If someone guarantees that they’ll get you a green card or work permit in a set period, it’s probably a scam.
- Watch out if someone can’t explain the process. If the “professional” you’ve hired can’t explain each step of the immigration process, you shouldn’t be working with them.
- Strange communications are usually illegitimate. The U.S. government only uses sites ending in “.gov,” They typically don’t make phone calls, and never reach out via social media.
- Weird payment requirements always mean fraud. If someone asks you to pay via wire transfer, Western Union, or gift cards, it’s not a legitimate service.
What To Do If You Become a Scam Victim
If you’ve already fallen for a scam, there are a few steps you need to take.
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Report The Scam
Many immigrants don’t report scams for fear of retaliation. However, being a victim of an immigration scam cannot affect your immigration status. And most of the reporting can be done anonymously.
You should report the scam to the FTC and state authorities. Doing so helps stop criminal scammers and protects other immigrants.
Contact Financial Institutions
If you give out any personal information, you must contact your bank and any other financial institutions. The fraudster could use your personal information to impersonate you, open accounts in your name, or steal your assets.
Your bank’s fraud department can help by changing your account numbers and implementing more security measures.
Change Your Email
Consider changing your email address and any important passwords. This small step can help keep thieves and scammers away from your assets and information.
Consider Identity Protection
Whether you think you’ve been scammed or not, identity protection services are a good idea. Here’s why.
Identity protection services monitor the dark web for your personal information. So, if a scammer tries to sell your information there, you’ll know about it. This allows you to take proactive steps to protect yourself.
Most services include access to threat resolution experts who can help you secure your identity and your assets.
And they typically include full identity restoration services with identity theft insurance. This means they’ll help you restore your identity if a thief steals it, and they’ll cover the cost of doing so. Theft insurance also usually includes stolen fund reimbursement and covers legal fees.
Finally, identity protection services usually offer digital security extras like anti-phishing software, VPNs, and password managers, making protecting yourself from scammers much easier.
If you’re in the U.S., I recommend using Aura as your identity protection service. It comes with the best monitoring and threat resolution tools available and is more affordable than many other comparable options. Plus, Home Security Heroes has a discount code you can use to make it even less expensive.
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Obtaining a visa or going through immigration is stressful. The last thing you want is to fall victim to a scam on top of everything.
Unfortunately, immigration and visa scams are common. And, because they’re underreported, many fraudsters continue to get away with their crimes.
Knowing how immigrants and visa holders fall victim to scams can help you avoid them. Paying attention to red flags will also help keep you and your family safe. And if you still fall victim to a fraudster, use the steps listed above, including reporting the scam and getting Aura’s identity theft protection, to mitigate any damages.