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Prosecutors say Utah immigration scams are increasing

Officials say scams are rising, promise victims they won’t face deportation if they speak up.

First Published Jan 22 2014 04:54 pm • Last Updated Jan 22 2014 10:00 pm

Prosecutors not only warned Wednesday that immigration scams are increasing, but launched a drive to persuade victims to come forward to help stop them — promising they need not worry about deportation if they do, and may even obtain a visa for their help.

"We’re not going to punish them for being a victim. We want to help them," said Jeanne M. Kent, Salt Lake City field office director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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"What motivates a prosecutor is when you have a vulnerable community with predators amongst them taking advantage of them," and it is those predators they want to catch — not their victims, said John Huber, a prosecutor for the U.S. attorney for Utah.

U.S. attorney for Utah David Barlow said officials may even offer a "U visa" to victims of such crimes for their help, and 20 victims recently obtained them for helping to convict Jose Gonzalez for posing as an immigration official to bilk victims out of tens of thousands of dollars for falsely promised help.

"Dressed as a U.S. immigration officer, including an immigration lanyard and photo ID draped over his neck, he would meet with families in their home and offer his claim of obtaining lawful U.S. residence documents," charging $7,000 to $10,000 per person, said Gregory Ferbrache,a deputy Utah attorney general.

When victims suspected fraud after receiving nothing for their money, "He would threaten the victim and victim’s family with deportation" aided by personal information he had collected from them, Ferbrache said.

It was just one of many scams prosecutors described Wednesday in a meeting in Barlow’s office with a variety of immigrant-group leaders, immigration attorneys, law-enforcement agencies, local-government officials and the press to get word out about increasing scams — and to spread the promise of protection and help for victims.

"Fraud follows money and opportunity. Some fraudsters are using the national discussion about immigration policy to take advantage of a vulnerable community," Barlow said.

"It’s a big problem, and it’s a problem in Utah," Kent added.

In one current scam, Kent said schemers call people who have filed immigration petitions, and claim to be calling from immigration.

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"The scammers are telling the people they didn’t pay the right fee, and if you don’t pay us the money today, your applications are going to be denied or we are going to deport you," and pressure them to wire money, she said.

"We don’t ask for money," Kent said. "We don’t threaten people with deportation. If the person gets a phone call like that, they should hang up."

But even if they hang up, Kent said scammers sometimes call back. "These people are very aggressive because victims have reported that they do hang up, but the scammers called back two or three times and threatened them, so they were very frightened."

Among the most common scams are people claiming to have legal expertise, but they are not attorneys and charge for doing things such as obtaining blank forms that people could easily get themselves, Kent said.

She noted that in Mexico, "notarios" can do a lot of immigration legal work — so immigrants sometimes falsely believe that notary publics here can similarly offer legal advice and work. They can’t.

So scammers often charge big money to make appointments with immigration officials — which anyone can do online — or to help fill out forms, or collect money to file forms. Kent said scammers often take money without performing any of the promised services, or fill out information incorrectly — hurting victims’ chances for immigration.

Huber listed several signs of scams.

"Authorities from immigration or the Department of Homeland Security will never agree to meet a person outside the office to conduct business," he said.

They will never ask for money. He said they "will never threaten to have you or your family deported if you do not pay money." He said they also will "not ask you to lie on an immigration form … if someone is asking you to do that, you are on the wrong path."

They urged people with questions or tips to contact the U.S. attorney for Utah, the Utah attorney general, CIS or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They said their websites often allow reporting crimes anonymously.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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