Timothy Muris, Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, and Marcos Daniel Jimènez, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, announced today that the husband and wife team of John Romano and Hoda M. Nofal, operating the “green card” lottery scam USA Immigration Services, has been shut down. Romano pled guilty to mail fraud in connection with the scam and was sentenced today to 37 months in prison. His wife, Hoda Nofal, previously pled guilty to obstruction of the mails and was sentenced in April 2004 to six months in prison.
In addition to the criminal actions, the FTC filed a civil action against Romano and Nofal, and their company, Global Web Solutions, Inc. (doing business as U.S.A. Immigration Services) in federal court in the District of Columbia. The FTC’s action alleged that the defendants, through eight Web sites, misled consumers into believing the sites were affiliated with the United States government, and that, for a fee, they could help consumers register for the State Department’s Diversity Visa (DV) lottery for a chance to apply for a permanent resident visa (green card). The court recently entered a stipulated final order that requires the defendants to post a $5 million bond before marketing services related to government-issued travel or residency documents, and to pay approximately $2.2 million in consumer redress. Today’s announcement resolves the FTC action and the parallel criminal matter prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida.
“This case is a red light for fraudulent green card operators,” said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris, “and an excellent example of the effectiveness of enforcement partnerships to stop scam artists. We want potential immigrants to know that the federal government is here to protect their rights.”
“This case signals that immigration scam artists will be pursued and shut down. The Southern District of Florida is closed for immigration fraud,” said United States Attorney Marcos Daniel Jimènez. “I am proud that our Office worked effectively with the FTC to stop the defendants’ illegal activities and protect the right of potential immigrants.”
The case announced today is part of an ongoing and comprehensive campaign to identify and halt fraud targeting Spanish-speaking consumers. In April of this year, the FTC announced its Hispanic Law Enforcement and Outreach initiative to address the growing problem of deceptive advertising aimed at Spanish-speaking consumers. The Initiative encompasses traditional law enforcement actions and consumer outreach. On May 12-13, 2004, the FTC held back-to-back workshops to explore strategies for effective and high-impact education and law enforcement to protect the Hispanic community from fraud. The workshops offered an opportunity to discuss the nature and extent of consumer fraud against Hispanics, law enforcement programs targeting these frauds, and best practices for reaching the Spanish-speaking community with fraud prevention messages. A report detailing the results of the workshops will be available later this summer.
In October 2003, the FTC filed a complaint in federal district court against Global Web Solutions, Inc. (doing business as USA Immigration Services, US Immigration Online, USAIS, and USIO, and John Romano and Hoda Nofal, both of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The complaint alleged that the defendants masqueraded as a U.S. government agency by using deceptive Web addresses, keyword metatags, business names, D.C. mailing addresses, “contact USAIS” State Department phone numbers, government seals or logos, and Internet advertising, and told consumers that by using the defendants’ services the consumers would be eligible to register for the State Department’s DV lottery. In addition, the complaint alleged that the defendants falsely claimed that consumers could apply online for a variety of travel and residency status documents, referred to as “green cards.”
On June 30, 2004, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved the FTC’s stipulated final order to settle the charges. The settlement requires the defendants to post a $5 million bond if they market, or assist others in marketing, services related to government-issued travel or residency documents. The settlement requires the defendants to pay approximately $2.2 million and prohibits them from misrepresenting themselves and their business. In addition, the settlement requires the defendants, when selling any travel or residency status document or program, to disclose clearly that they are not a state or federal government agency, and that there is no guarantee that using their services will result in winning the DV lottery or obtaining a visa or green card. The settlement bans them from making material misrepresentations about travel or residency status documents or programs, or about any item, product, good, or service.
Further, the settlement prohibits the defendants from billing or attempting to collect payment for any item, product, good, or service represented to assist consumers in applying for the DV lottery, when it is known or should be known that the consumer is not eligible for the lottery. In addition, it prohibits the defendants from assisting others in violating the law and from selling or using their customer lists. Finally, the settlement contains various recordkeeping requirements to assist the FTC in monitoring the defendants’ compliance.
The Commission vote authorizing staff to file the proposed stipulated final order was 5-0.
NOTE: This stipulated final order is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. Stipulated final orders have the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the stipulated final order, and other documents relating to this matter are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish (bilingual counselors are available to take complaints), or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Gregory Ashe or Reilly Dolan
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-3719 or 202-326-3292
U.S. Attorney Office Contact:
Carlos B. Castillo
Special Counsel for Public Affairs
(FTC File No. X 040001)
(Civil Action No. 03-CV-2031-HHK)