Posing as Government Agency, Defendants Allegedly Operated Fraudulent Registration Web Pages
With the opening day of the U.S. State Department’s annual Diversity Visa (DV) Lottery just weeks away, the Federal Trade Commission today cracked down on the operators of eight Internet Web sites who allegedly misled consumers into believing they were affiliated with the United States government, and that they could help consumers register through the DV lottery for a chance to apply for a permanent resident visa (green card) for a fee. In reality, according to the FTC, the defendants had no connection to the federal government and misled consumers in a variety of ways about the services they claimed to provide.
“These bogus operators not only picked consumers’ pockets, they may have nixed their victims’ only opportunity to enter this year’s Diversity Visa lottery,” said Howard Beales, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC is prepared to bring enforcement action against any scam artist who masquerades as an agent of the federal government.”
“The FTC’s action today alerts Diversity Visa applicants to potential abuses and that use of paid assistance to help prepare their application for the Diversity Visa Lottery is at their discretion and risk,” said Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs. “Although some diversity visa registration assistance may be legitimate, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs advises registrants they should be vigilant against this kind of scam. This complaint shows the U.S. government is prepared to act against misleading operators.”
In filing its complaint against Global Web Solutions, Inc. (d/b/a USA Immigration Services, US Immigration Online, USAIS, and USIO), John Romano, and Hoda M. Nofal, both of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the Commission is seeking permanent injunctive relief and redress that the court may deem appropriate. At the FTC’s request, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia entered a temporary restraining order on October 2, which prohibits the defendants from making further misrepresentations and freezing their assets.
The Diversity Visa Lottery
Under the Immigration Act of 1990, the Diversity Visa program makes available 50,000 permanent resident visas to people with the equivalent of a high school education or two or more years of work experience or training in an appropriate trade, who were born in countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. This year, people born in Canada, China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom and its dependant territories, and Vietnam are not eligible to enter the DV lottery.
From millions of qualifying applicants, the State Department randomly selects approximately 90,000 lottery “winners,” who may then apply for visas at the consular offices nearest them. At these offices, about 45 percent of the winners fail to meet the minimum educational or work experience or training requirements, fail to supply the required medical information, or fail to complete the additional required paperwork either completely or on time. For the rest of the fiscal year after the lottery takes place, the qualifying winners are issued Diversity Visas on a first-come, first-serve basis until the requisite 50,000 are issued.
There is no fee to enter the DV lottery. Starting this year, to enter the DV lottery, applicants must apply electronically on an online application form by providing their basic biographical information, including a digital passport photo, through a dedicated State Department Web site (www.dvlottery.state.gov). The Web site is open only during a specific time period (this year, from November 1, 2003 through December 30, 2003). In previous years, applicants supplied the requested information via mail to the State Department’s Consular Center in Kentucky (no specific forms were required). Only one registration per person is allowed (however, a husband and wife may each, if eligible, submit one entry). Multiple applications by a single individual can result in that person being disqualified from the lottery that year. Only lottery winners are notified by the State Department. Applicants not selected may apply again in subsequent years’ lotteries but must submit a new application to do so.
The Defendants’ Business Practices
The FTC contends that since at least January 2001, the defendants have been marketing their travel and residency document services on the Internet, maintaining at least eight Web sites, including www.usais.org, in an effort to entice consumers to sign up for the DV lottery by using their services. Two of the sites are in Italian and Japanese, but all refer consumers to USAIS’s purported services, including: 1) assistance in applying for the DV lottery; and 2) assistance in obtaining passports, green cards, and other residency or travel documents.
According to the FTC, using both keyword “metatags” and express language on the Web sites, USAIS claimed to be either an official agency of, or affiliated with, the U.S. government. The metatags typically led unwitting consumers to USAIS’s sites on the Internet through the use of search engines. The Web site featured an official-looking eagle and billowing flag banner across the top of the site, American iconic images (such as the Statue of Liberty, the flag, and the Capitol), and the official seals and logos of – and links to – USA Freedom Corps, the White House, and FirstGov on the home page. Further, the defendants allegedly claimed to use actual government telephone numbers that actually belong to the State Department. They also listed a Washington, DC address that, in fact, is a commercial mail store. Finally, they used terms such as “Official U.S. Immigration Forms” to describe subjects they address.
Consumers reaching a USAIS Web site and clicking on the link for the “Green Card Application” page were prompted to enter certain biographical information, along with their credit card number to pay the required fee. After payment is made, according to the FTC, the defendants allowed consumers to access USAIS’s DV Lottery Database to complete their application. The Web site then instructed consumers to review and print their completed application and mail it to the company’s address in Washington, DC, along with a passport-size photograph of the applicant and any spouse and unmarried children who are under 21. Fees ranged from $40 or $70 for submitting an application for “one year” to $150 or $250 for “10 years.”
Alternately, consumers could click on a link where they could purportedly take an eligibility quiz and apply online. At this link, consumers provided basic biographical information and were supposedly told whether they were eligible for the lottery. The FTC contends, however, that USAIS often provided consumers with incorrect information about their eligibility, as well as misrepresented that they would ensure that their applications met the State Department’s guidelines as to the information and documents required for the lottery.
The defendants allegedly also falsely told consumers that they could apply online or by mail for first-time passports and first-time green cards, without appearing before a government official. The defendants allegedly charged consumers $9.95 to access USAIS’s passport services and $50 for its green card services. In both cases, consumers had to pay online using their credit card, and only after paying did the defendants inform them that they only provided online access to the required forms. Consumers could complete the forms online, but they could not be submitted electronically – only in-person so they could swear they were truthful and sign them.
The Commission’s Complaint
According to the Commission’s complaint, the defendants violated the FTC Act in a variety of ways. First, through their deceptive use of Web addresses, “metatags,” business names, mailing addresses, and Internet advertising, they illegally masqueraded as a federal government agency, deceiving consumers about their true identity. Next, they allegedly misrepresented that their services ensure that consumers’ applications are submitted within government guidelines and will be included in the annual DV lottery. Finally, they allegedly misled consumers into believing they could apply online through the defendants’ Web site or via mail for first-time passports and first-time green cards, when in fact, the application process for such documents requires in-person contact.
The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint was 5-0. It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on October 1, 2003, under seal. The court granted the FTC’s request for a temporary restraining order on October 2, 2003. The FTC received assistance in its investigation from the U.S. State Department, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington, DC, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida.
To help consumers more fully understand the visa lottery program and avoid potential fraud, the FTC has developed a “Facts for Consumers” document that is now available on the Commission’s Web site as a link to this press release.
The FTC warns consumers that some businesses and attorneys use misrepresentations and unfair practices to promote services to consumers who hope to win a chance to apply for an immigrant visa through the DV lottery program. The best way to protect yourself from green card lottery scam artists is to understand how the State Department's lottery works.
- Entering the green card lottery is straightforward and costs nothing. You can enter on your own at the State Department’s Web site, www.dvlottery.state.gov. Hiring an attorney or company to enter the lottery for you is your decision. Your chances of being selected are the same whether you submit an application yourself or pay someone to do it for you, however.
- Do not submit more than one entry. If you do, you will be disqualified automatically, even if someone else submitted the multiple entries.
- No special techniques or loopholes are available to increase your chances of winning the green card lottery. Selection of entries in the lottery is random.
- Be wary of Web sites posing as government sites. They may have domain names similar to government agencies, have official-looking eagles, flags or other American iconic images (such as the Statue of Liberty or the Capitol), have the official seals or logos of – and links to – other government sites, and list Washington, D.C. mailing addresses. Unless the domain name ends in “.gov” it is not a government site, but is a private, commercial site.
More information about the State Department’s Diversity Visa lottery can be found on their Web site at www.travel.state.gov and their Destination USA Web site at www.unitedstatesvisas.gov. People may also call the State Department’s Visa Services’ Public Inquiries Branch at 202-663-1225. This number has recorded information with an option to speak with a visa specialist during most
business hours. Persons overseas should contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate office.
NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. A complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendants have actually violated the law. The cases will be decided by the courts in which they were filed.
Copies of the complaint 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, DC 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, 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.
(FTC File No. 032-3071)
(Civil Action No. 03-CV-2031-HHK)
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