Immigration scams can cost you money immediately, cause serious immigration consequences, or lead to identity theft that could have a long-term impact on your financial well-being.
Unfortunately, many factors make immigrants a frequent target for scammers. Many immigrants are anxious about the immigration process, unsure if they qualify for green cards or other visas, and unfamiliar with how the U.S. government conducts business. And many immigrants don’t speak English as their first language, or aren’t deeply familiar with cultural norms in the United States.
If you have any doubts about whether someone claiming to be from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is an imposter, you should contact USCIS customer service at 800-375-5283.
There are scammers who target immigrants at all steps of the immigration process. Here are some common scams and how you can avoid them.
One of the most persistent immigration scams involves unqualified and unscrupulous individuals who offer to help immigrants file paperwork with the government in return for a large fee—but then either never file the paperwork, or apply for immigration benefits that their “clients” are not eligible for, often creating more immigration problems for their victims.
One especially deceptive advertising tactic used by many such individuals is to call themselves “notario,” “notario público,” or “notary public.” In Latin America and Europe, a “notario” or notary public often refers to someone who has a high level of education and the equivalent of a license to practice law. In the United States, however, a notary public is someone who is simply licensed to witness signatures, and the designation carries no specific educational requirements. Thus many scammers use terms like “notario” to pose as lawyers, when in fact they have little or no legal training.
According to USCIS, there are only two kinds of “authorized immigration service providers” who are allowed to provide legal advice about your specific immigration case and communicate with USCIS on your behalf:
Licensed attorneys in good standing: If you choose to work with a lawyer, he or she must be licensed to practice law by at least one state (check here), and must not appear on the Department of Justice (DOJ) list of badly behaving attorneys (check here).
Accredited non-lawyers: Within DOJ, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) recognizes certain nonprofit organizations that are allowed to provide legal services. Any non-lawyer within such an organization must appear on this DOJ list of accredited representatives.
Resources for finding authorized legal help include the DOJ’s list of free (pro bono) immigration lawyers, this nonprofit directory of legal aid organizations, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association lawyer search tool.
Even after you’ve checked to make sure you’re working with an authorized legal services provider, it’s always a good idea to make sure you understand their process, timeline, and fee structure before getting started.
(Boundless is not a law firm—we help you complete and file your own green card application, and we connect you with an independent immigration attorney to provide legal advice.)
The other major type of immigration scam is people and websites pretending to be from government agencies, typically USCIS or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When scammers impersonate a USCIS or ICE official, they often call, email, or visit the victim and tell him or her that there is a problem with his or her immigration status. The scammers will then offer to “fix” the problem in return for a fee. The scammers may falsely threaten that failure to pay the fee will result in a visa application being denied, or even in deportation.
While these imposter scams often focus on getting an immediate payment, there are also scams that simply collect or “verify” personal information like names, dates of birth, social security numbers, and addresses—all of which can then be used to steal the victim’s identity.
Here are some specific scams that have been reported in recent years:
Phone scams: The victim gets a phone call that appears to be from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hotline number or from a USCIS local office number—but the real phone number is hidden. In one version of this “spoofing” scam, the scammer says that he or she is from “U.S. Immigration,” and requests personal information or asks for payment. Remember, USCIS will not ask for personal information over the phone, and DHS never uses its hotline number for outgoing calls.
Deportation threats: In an attempt to cash in on the fear of deportation, fake “ICE agents” knock on immigrants’ doors, give them fake warrants, or accost them on the streets, threatening to deport them if they fail to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars. Real ICE agents will not allow you to avoid arrest in exchange for money.
Diversity visa scam: The victim gets an email that impersonates the U.S. State Department and claims that he or she has won the diversity visa lottery. This scam usually asks the victim to send money via Western Union in order to “process the visa application”—which the real State Department would never do.
Scam websites: The victim is encouraged to file immigration paperwork and pay USCIS fees through a website with a logo and a web address similar to official U.S. government websites. These “copycat” websites lead immigrants to believe that they are paying a government filing fee to USCIS, when in fact the money is going to the scammers operating the website. Scam websites will also sometimes claim to file immigration forms directly with USCIS, leading victims to believe that their immigration paperwork is being processed by the government when it was actually never submitted.
Fortunately, spotting immigration scams isn’t too difficult if you know what to look for. Here are some top signs that you’re dealing with a scammer:
The news is too good to be true. For example, if other attorneys have said that you don’t qualify for a green card, but this one says it will be no problem, it might be a scam. Likewise, you won’t be able to avoid deportation by paying ICE officials a few hundred dollars (or any amount, in fact).
Any “guarantee” of a specific result. Qualified immigration attorneys and representatives know that each case is unique, and that there is never an absolute “guarantee” that the applicant will receive the green card or other immigration benefit that he or she is seeking.
No explanation of the process or your eligibility. Scammers will often simply promise that you’ll get a green card or a work permit, asking for individual pieces of information or documents without explaining how the process works or why you are eligible in the first place.
Communicating in a way that the government never would. First of all, any official U.S. government website or email address should always end in “.gov”—if not, and the website or email claims to be from the government, it’s probably a scam. Likewise, USCIS will never call you to request information about your case.
Strange payments. Only a scammer would ask you to pay a fee in a strange way, such as through Western Union, PayPal, or even an iTunes gift card. In fact, USCIS has clear fee instructions for paying by a check or money order made out to “U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” If you failed to pay a required government fee with your application, USCIS will return your application to you to be refiled, but will never call or email requesting payment. There are some specific circumstances where you can use a credit card to pay USCIS fees, but you should never be asked to do so over the phone or in an email.
If you receive a suspicious email, don’t respond to it—but do forward it to the USCIS Webmaster (USCIS.Webmaster@uscis.dhs.gov) so that they can investigate.
Reporting an immigration scam will not affect your application, and can often be done anonymously. It’s the right thing to do, so that government officials can more effectively stop the scammers from targeting future victims.
You can avoid unscrupulous notarios and other immigration scams by being vigilant and using common sense. Doing so will help ensure that your immigration process runs smoothly, that you don’t pay more than what’s required, and that you successfully obtain the green card or other immigration benefits that you’re eligible for under law.