In mid-2016, Gabriela received an email that appeared to come from the United States Embassy in Mexico City. The message claimed that there was a problem with her visa and offered the contact information of an office where she could fix it. She never thought to question the authenticity of the email, because who doubts a message from the American government?
Gabriela was in the process of adjusting her immigration status, so she forwarded the mail to her lawyer. This was a fortunate move, because it stopped a scam that could have cost her a lot of money.
“We can all be victims of scammers. They are very professional in what they do. That is why they do it. They make money out of it,” said Laura Solís, a lawyer for the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) at a panel discussion on personal, telephone or internet frauds and extortions in Alaska. “Nearly one fifth of all complaints we get from Alaska’s consumers are about an impostor’s scam,” said Charles Harwood, regional director of the FTC’s Northwest office at this event organized by New American Media.
Many of these impostors claim to belong to government offices such as the Internal Revenue Service, or the FTC; or they pretend to represent private companies such as Microsoft. In the course of a call, they manipulate their targets into sending them money in exchange for services they will not provide. Scammers usually work by convincing their victims that if they do not pay, something bad will happen to them.
Immigrants, Harwood said, are particularly vulnerable to scams. “We have heard of scams threatening to deport people who were here legally.” Not all immigrants understand the immigration system, so they are easy preys for such traps. Scammers may even say things such as, “We know you have your Green Card, and we could take it away if you do not send us money.” Scammers are good at sounding official, so it can be hard to recognize the deception. And even if many of the legal terms a scammer uses do not make sense, everyone “gets the word ‘arrest.’”
To prevent this type of fraud, Solís advised:
1. If you think that something does not sound right, stop and talk to someone you trust.
2. Do some research. Go online and type the name of the company or whoever is talking to you on the phone.
3. Do not wire money to anyone who asks for it.
4. Report your complaints using the FTC’s website, www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0012-scams-against-immigrants.
Ed Sniffen, Deputy Attorney General for the State of Alaska, encouraged anyone who may want to report a scam: “Do not be embarrassed or shy to report a fraud.” He explained that in the Office of the Attorney General there is a Consumer Protection Unit that takes such reports. A form for submitting a complaint can be downloaded at: www.law.alaska.gov/pdf/consumer/FORM_complaint.pdf
In a telephone interview, Solís explained that fraudsters often create fake government websites so that victims think they are being directed to an authentic site and send their money without hesitation. She advised checking that the names of the website that look like a government site ends in dot gov (.gov). Regarding messages from banks or utility companies, one way to confirm if they are authentic is to check their websites or phone numbers given on their statements.
With respect to immigration-related scams, the USCIS website states that they do not accept Western Union payments or PayPal, but they do receive checks addressed to the Department of Homeland Security. If paying with a credit card is necessary, one should use the official form G-1450, which should be downloaded only from the USCIS website.
Also on the USCIS website is this notice: “The State Department will never email you about being selected in the Diversity Immigrant Program.” Information on this program, also known as Visa Lottery, is obtained only from the USCIS website using confidential numbers that are assigned on a case-by-case basis.