An immigration attorney who markets his professional services to immigrants who are interested in obtaining “green cards” through the State Department’s “green card lottery” has been charged by the Federal Trade Commission with misleading tens of thousands of consumers worldwide about the nature of the green card lottery and his ability to increase an individual’s chances of becoming a winner. In addition, the FTC charged that the attorney unfairly jeopardized his customers’ ability to participate in the lottery by filing multiple entries in violation of State Department rules, and later tried to force his lottery-winning customers into making additional payments to him by failing to provide them with their State Department visa-application materials. As part of a proposed settlement to these charges, filed in federal court, the attorney, David L. Amkraut, has agreed to provide “in-kind” redress to consumers -- by assisting them to enter the February 1997 green card lottery free of charge.
According to the FTC, Amkraut, sole proprietor of the Law Offices of David L. Amkraut, in Los Angeles, California, falsely represented in advertisements and promotional materials that individuals must fill out special entry forms to enter the green card lottery, that none of his customers had ever been rejected from the green card lottery, that he could increase a consumer’s chances of being selected as a winner in the lottery, that he had a proven success rate for customers of his lottery entry services, and that he was a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The FTC also alleges that Amkraut misrepresented that entries submitted through his services satisfied the technical requirements set by the State Department, and that he unfairly submitted multiple entries to the lottery, a prohibited practice that, if discovered by the Department, would disqualify unwitting consumers. The FTC also alleges that Amkraut unfairly witheld the State Department’s information package from his lottery winning customers to try to pressure “winners” into paying him an additional fee of more than $950 - $1,250 to process the second stage of the green card application.
Under the proposed settlement, Amkraut would be prohibited from misrepresenting the nature of the green card lottery and his ability to help consumers win in the lottery. Amkraut also would be required to provide green card lottery winners with the information from the State Department that they need to apply for an immigrant visa on their own in a timely fashion.
"Green card lottery scams prey on individuals who don’t know the rules of the State Department’s lottery," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Unscrupulous businesses or attorneys who claim they can increase your chance of winning the lottery give false hope to thousands of immigrants looking for the chance to live permanently in the United States. Remember--there is no fee to enter the lottery and winners are selected randomly. "
THE GREEN CARD LOTTERY
The Immigration Act of 1990 created a new category of immigrant visas to encourage ethnic diversity in the U.S. population. In general, individuals can qualify for immigrant visas under the "diversity visa" (“DV”) program simply by being a native of a country that has sent relatively few immigrants to the United States in recent years. The State Department conducts an annual lottery to distribute applications for 55,000 immigrant visas provided through the DV program. Winners of this lottery receive the opportunity to apply for one of the available immigrant visas, which can be used to enter the United States. If the winner files a successful application, he or she receives an immigrant visa from the State Department, enters the United States, and then exchanges the immigrant visa for a permanent residence visa, commonly referred to as a “green card,” which is issued by the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”). Even though a lottery winner does not actually win a green card, but only the opportunity to apply for one, the diversity visa lottery program is popularly known as the “green card lottery.”
For green card lottery winners, filling out the application for the immigrant visa is fairly straightforward, but time-consuming. The State Department routinely selects more winners than there are visas available, (e.g., 105,000 individuals are selected to apply for only 55,000 visas), and processes winners’ applications on a first-come, first-served basis. Thus, individuals who submit applications after all the visas available for their geographic region have been distributed will be denied a visa. As a result, for individuals selected as lottery winners, time is of the essence in applying for their diversity immigrant visas.
THE COMPLAINT AGAINST AMKRAUT
According to the FTC’s complaint, Amkraut marketed his green card lottery services in advertisements and promotional materials in the United States and around the world. Amkraut represented that the fee for his services was $50 for one individual, or $75 for a married couple. Included in the promotional material is a "Green Card Lottery Request Form," which the consumer is directed to complete. The "Request Form" asks for basic information about the consumer and his or her spouse and children, such as name, birth date, number of years of education, employment, and country of birth. In return for the fee, Amkraut entered the consumer into the green card lottery, using the information provided by the consumer on the "Request Form."
The FTC’s complaint states that Amkraut made representations about his services and the green card lottery such as:
- "To enter the lottery, formal papers called 'Registrations' must be written and filed with the U.S. State Department;
- "Why Should I use Your Law Firm to Apply? ... We can increase your chance of success. We carefully satisfy the many 'technical' requirements;
- "We use our knowledge of State Department and Immigration Service procedures to give you your best possible chance of winning a Green Card;
- "We made a very detailed study of the regulations and procedures for the Green Card Lottery, searching for ways to give our clients an advantage. This study uncovered several 'loopholes' by which we increased -- even doubled, tripled, and quadrupled -- our clients' chances;
- "By entering through us, you receive Proof of Entry stamped by the United States Government; and
- "[Defendant] is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and other professional groups."
In connection with providing green card lottery services to consumers, the complaint charges that Amkraut submitted incomplete entries and multiple entries per consumer that have resulted in the disqualification or rejection of many of these consumers. Amkraut's practice of submitting multiple entries on behalf of unwitting consumers is in violation of State Department rules that limit individuals to a single lottery entry.
Additionally, according to the FTC, if a consumer who uses Amkraut's services is selected as a green card lottery winner, the National Visa Center ("NVC"), which operates the lottery on behalf of the State Department, notifies Amkraut that the consumer has been selected. Amkraut provided his own address, rather than the address of the consumer, for notification of selection as a green card lottery winner. The NVC immediately provided the defendant with the consumer's identifying "case number" and a package of documents containing the information necessary to complete the process for applying for an immigrant visa, which the NVC calls "Package 3."
Amkraut subsequently informed his winning customers that they had been selected as a "winner," but did not provide consumers with their NVC case number or Package 3, according to the complaint. Instead, Amkraut routinely made numerous solicitations to pressure winning consumers into paying an additional fee of $995 to $1250 to have him prepare visa applications on their behalf, making such representations as:
- "Because you need to apply both fast and accurately, I urge you to hire this law firm to handle your Green Card application;
- "We are professionals at this work.... Last year, all the 'winners' who hired us to do their consulate applications received Green Cards;
- "It is a mistake to try to do the work on your own.... And you can not risk a mistake. One small mistake could cause a delay that would prevent you from getting a Green Card;
- "You may think the U.S. Consulate will help you with the Application. Unfortunately, the Consulates are busy and cannot offer individual help; and
- "Please select one of these two choices:
- Apply on your own. We don't advise this. However, if you choose to do so, let us know at once and we will send you the packet of information from the U.S. Government.
- Continue to use our services. To continue with our help, please send the following to our offices at once:... Fee of USD $995.00, for our legal services... ."
In many cases, according to the complaint, Amkraut refused to send his winning customers their NVC case number and Package 3 until at least the third notification to the consumer, which constituted a delay of several weeks, and, in some cases, of more than three months, notwithstanding Amkraut's own advice that "you must act quickly to get an early 'priority date' and make sure you get one of the Green Cards. Otherwise you will lose your chance and get nothing."
The FTC’s complaint charged that Amkraut engaged in unfair and deceptive practices when marketing his services and, in many cases, caused consumers to suffer substantial and unavoidable economic harm because they failed to obtain green cards due to missed NVC deadlines, misunderstood the process based on the defendant’s representations, or inability to pay defendant’s additional fees, or they paid the defendant’s additional fees which they would not otherwise have had to pay. In addition, Amkraut misrepresented that certain promotional materials distributed to consumers were reprints of independent newspaper articles from The Express, The Mirror, Sri Lanka Express and The Ethiopian Mirror. In fact, the complaint alleges, these promotional materials distributed to consumers were not reprints of independent newspaper articles, but rather were paid commercial advertisements.
THE SETTLEMENT WITH AMKRAUT
The proposed order agreed to by Amkraut to settle these charges would prohibit him from making the kinds of misrepresentations alleged in the complaint in connection with any green card lottery services or any other immigrant/nonimmigrant services he offers through the use of direct marketing. Among other things, Amkraut would be prohibited from misrepresenting his success rates, or that he can increase a consumer’s chances of winning in the green card lottery; his membership in any professional organization; that a paid advertisement is an independent newspaper article; or any other fact material to a consumer’s decision to purchase his green card lottery services. The proposed order also would prohibit Amkraut from knowingly failing to comply with all State Department regulations or operating procedures for green card lottery entries.
The order also would require Amkraut, in any newspaper advertisements and in mailings to consumers in which he solicits payment to use his services, to provide an affirmative disclosure on the nature of the green card lottery, informing consumers prior to making a purchase, that entries in the green card lotteries are selected at random and that being selected as a "winner" means only that an individual can apply for a limited number of green cards, but does not guarantee that a "winner" will actually get a green card. In addition, the affirmative disclosure must inform consumers that the State Department may impose an additional fee to actually get a green card, and that consumers may complete the green card application procedures on their own or hire Amkraut to do the paperwork for an additional, disclosed fee.
In order to prevent Amkraut from being able to pressure green card lottery winners to make additional payments to him or have their packets withheld, the order would require Amkraut to notify consumers that they have been selected as a winner within five days after Amkraut receives notification from the State Department, and at that time inform consumers that they may continue the paperwork on their own or hire Amkraut for an additional disclosed fee. If a consumer chooses to apply for a green card on his or her own, Amkraut would be required to send the application package to the consumer within five days of receiving that notification.
Further, under the proposed order, Amkraut has agreed to contact all consumers who purchased his services in the lotteries held in 1994 and 1995, and to notify them that, in accordance to an agreement with the FTC, Amkraut will provide his services free of charge to them in the February 1997 green card lottery, which runs from noon on February 3, 1997 to noon on March 5, 1997.
Finally, the proposed order contains numerous recordkeeping requirements designed to ensure Amkraut’s compliance with the terms of the settlement.
The Commission vote to authorize the filing of the complaint and proposed stipulated order was 5-0. They were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, in Los Angeles, on January 17, 1997.
NOTE: This stipulated final judgment, which is subject to the court’s approval, is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. Judgments have the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the complaint and stipulated final order, as well as an FTC Consumer Alert regarding Green Card Lottery Scams, are available from the FTC’s Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710. FTC news releases and other materials also are available on the Internet at the FTC’s World Wide Web site at: http://www.ftc.gov
For further information about the upcoming Green Card Lottery, contact the State Department Hotline at 900-884-8840 (toll call) or visit their home page at: http://travel.state.gov
(Civil Action No. 97-0354 RSWL (BQRx))
(FTC File No.: 952 3182)
Office of Public Affairs
Heather Hippsley or Dana Lesemann
202-326-3285 or 202-326-3146