Court shuts down online immigration document 'scam'

The operation's websites mimicked government sites and charged customers for immigration forms, the FTC says

A U.S. court has shut down an online operation that allegedly posed as the U.S. government and charged customers fees between US$200 and $2,500 for immigration processing fees at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, although the operation was not affiliated with the agency, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced Monday.

A judge in U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada has frozen the operation's assets until a complaint brought by the FTC is resolved, the FTC said in a press release. The agency has asked the court to permanently halt the business practices and order the operation to repay people who paid the fees.

Defendants Immigration Center and Immigration Forms and Publications set up websites that mimicked official government sites, then used the fake sites to steer immigrants to their telemarketing operation, the FTC alleged.

The legitimate U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, offers advice and counseling to immigrants in the U.S. and people seeking to immigrate to the U.S.

USCIS provides application forms for such benefits as green card renewal, work visas and applications for asylum. The application forms are free, but processing can cost hundreds of dollars or more.

The operation's websites depicted American eagles, the U.S. flag and the Statue of Liberty, and had URLs such as uscis-ins.us and usgovernmenthelpline.com. The sites directed consumers to call a toll-free number that an automated voice answered, "immigration center." Live operators at the site identified themselves as from USCIS or the U.S. immigration center and called themselves agents, immigration officers or caseworkers, the FTC said.

Uscis-ins.us, usgovernmenthelponline.com and the website for Immigration Forms and Publications all appeared to be down Monday afternoon.

The sites offered counseling and application forums, but the counseling was done by telemarketers who did not meet legal requirements to provide immigration services, the FTC said.

The defendants charged fees for application forms that were the same amounts as government processing fees, leading customers to believe the fees covered the cost of USCIS processing, the FTC said. Some customers of the operation paid for applications that were never processed by USCIS because they did not pay the official processing fee and others were charged twice, once by the defendants and once by the government.

The defendants violated federal law by falsely claiming they were authorized to provide immigration and naturalization services and that they were affiliated with the U.S. government, the FTC alleged. It was also illegal for the operation to tell customers that fees paid would cover all costs of submitting immigration documents to USCIS, the FTC said.

In addition to Immigration Center and Immigration Forms and Publications, the FTC named seven individuals in its complaint. None of those associated with the operation could be reached for comment.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags U.S. Federal Trade Commissione-commerceregulationU.S. Department of Homeland SecurityCivil lawsuitslegalgovernmentImmigration Forms and PublicationsU.S. Citizenship and Immigration ServicesinternetU.S. District Court for the District of NevadaImmigration Center

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