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As ICE Cracks Down, Scams Ramp Up

Immigration authorities aren't the only ones targeting immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Alan Neuhauser | Staff Writer, U.S. News & World Report - 17-03-16
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Last month, at least three Latino residents in the nation's capital got knocks on their doors from people identifying themselves as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who slipped search warrants under the door when the residents refused to answer.

A week earlier in New York City, four men wearing ICE jackets cornered a man walking in his neighborhood in Queens, shaking him down for $250. And in the months before, other residents reported getting calls from people who said they were immigration authorities and demanded bribes of as much as $1,550 to avoid deportation.

In each incident the supposed agents were fraudsters, the threats of deportation empty, and they prompted consumer alerts from the attorneys general for the District of Columbia and New York -- the the latest example of so-called "impostor schemes" targeting immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

These types of ploys are not exactly new, law enforcement officials and immigration advocates say. Impostor schemes last year for the first time surged past identity theft as the second most common type of consumer complaint, trailing debt collection complaints, according to the Federal Trade Commission. But as the Trump administration has heightened immigration enforcement, some officials and immigration outreach groups say that they have seen an uptick.

"These sorts of scams have been reported before in other jurisdictions," Robert Marus, a spokesman for the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General, said in a statement. "However, the scammers this time around are obviously exploiting the current climate of heightened fears of deportation in immigrant communities due to policy changes in enforcement."

Fake Warrant (PDF)
Fake Warrant (text)

The FTC received 1,109 complaints about immigration services in 2016 -- a slight increase of 0.04 percent from the previous year, but experts and advocates agree that the actual number of incidents is almost certainly higher.

Many complaints are submitted to state databases that don't make it into the FTC's report. Immigrant communities also are largely reluctant to report crimes to police, fearful that doing so will attract unwanted attention from immigration authorities. And local, state and federal law enforcement agencies generally do not ask the immigration status of crime victims, making reliable data on fraud that targets immigrants virtually nonexistent.

As a result, each complaint in a case that reaches prosecution likely represents another 99 victims, according to one estimate by an anti-fraud initiative at the nonprofit outreach group Ayuda, which provided the information about the incidents in the nation's capital to the District of Columbia's attorney general's office.

"There's wide under-reporting of this problem," says Anne Schaufele, a staff attorney at Ayuda who leads Project END, or End Notario Deceit, a reference to fraudsters who offer bogus legal servies.

And while the ploys may be fake, the effects of the schemes are real.

One of the victims who received a fake warrant "didn't leave her home for several weeks, wasn't attending work or school, and once she did was paranoid and constantly watching out," Schaufele says. "It really freaked the victims out -- and for good reason. People are really on edge, and it's a terrible scheme in exploiting a really vulnerable population right now."

Immigrant communities are especially exposed to potential scams. Recent arrivals from a country where a notario publico -- or notary public -- is equivalent to a lawyer may not realize that notaries in the U.S. are authorized only to witness signatures. Others may not have the knowledge to distinguish real attorneys from fake ones, or they may come from nations where government bribes are expected.

Perhaps most crucially, though, are the elements of confusion, fear and desperation common to immigrants in the country illegally, anxieties easily inflamed by upticks in government enforcement.

"Whether it's fear of deportation, fear of a loved one being detained or in trouble, scammers feed off fear," says John Breyault, vice president of public policy policy for the National Consumers League and director of Fraud.org, which collects fraud complaints.

Navigating the immigration system is a lengthy and complex process. Often the available remedies are few or nonexistent. As a result, seemingly easy solutions become ever more appealing, something that con artists capitalize on.

"When people feel the intensified fear of deportation, they're much more likely to fall prey to someone who says, 'I have a way for you to stay here,'" says Avideh Moussavian, of the National Immigration Law Center.

That's why, in some ways, the apparent increase in complaints is no different than under previous administrations: Outreach groups say they tend to record surges in impostor complaints whenever immigration enforcement is ramped up, whether under President Barack Obama or President Donald Trump.

"We definitely see more people showing up and knocking on doors, saying they're ICE and you got to pay money or you're going to be deported," says Camille Mackler, director of legal initiatives for the New York Immigration Coalition, which leads a broad-based immigration task force.

"The fact that all of that is happening creates an air of impunity, and you'll find that creates an environment where people will prey on people who are fearful."

Earlier this month, for example, a former information technology worker for The Washington Post was arrested in northern Virginia and accused by police of posing as an ICE agent. Another man in South Carolina, meanwhile, was arrested after prosecutors said he extorted more than $70,000 from six people by posing as an ICE agent and threatening them with deportation.

An ICE spokeswoman acknowledged that "it is not uncommon to see cases of individuals impersonating its federal agents and officers in order to take advantage of others."

"People should be suspicious of anyone claiming to be a law enforcement officer who can make their problems disappear for an amount of money," spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said, urging "anyone who suspects they've been contacted by an imposter to call local law enforcement and/or ICE's 24-hour tip line at 1-866-DHS-2ICE."

Reporting potential crime or fraud, however, can sometimes seem too much of a risk for those in the country illegally: After a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services supervisor pleaded guilty in 2006 for swindling Asian immigrants, for example, some of the victims who cooperated with federal authorities after learning of the investigation -- people who had been led to believe by the supervisor that they were naturalized citizens -- later found out that, despite their help, they might still face deportation.

"My clients believed that they properly went through the naturalization process and [were] even sworn in as citizens," says attorney Richard Chang, who filed a related lawsuit last year in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. "After our experience with this case, our law firm now has a policy of advising our clients not to cooperate with any DHS investigation and to not give any affidavits. We will argue everything in court instead. Our clients were victims and agreed to cooperate in good faith with USCIS only to be issued deportation notices."

More recently, at a courthouse in El Paso, Texas, last month, immigration agents detained a woman seeking a restraining order against a domestic abuser.

ICE maintains that its officers "will take into consideration if an individual is the immediate victim or witness to a crime in determining whether to take enforcement action," Benett, the agency spokeswoman, says.

Nonetheless, the threat of heightened enforcement under Trump, who has vowed to step up deportations while offering shifting rhetoric about the scope of his crackdown, combined with his explosive statements on the campaign trail about some Mexican immigrants being criminals and "rapists," seems to have inflamed fears of an indiscriminate crackdown.

The Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, for example, which works with the New York Attorney General's Office to combat fraud, saw its daily calls surge by 266 percent and the number of walk-ins jump by 250 percent in the weeks after the election.

Beyond the politics of the day, though, reports of questionable tactics used by legitimate immigration authorities have long been unsettling for immigrants and concerning to their advocates.

ICE agents under Obama were accused of detaining teenagers heading to school, pretending to be Chicago police officers, skirting search warrants, and taking a man into custody after luring him from church by texting him from a family member's phone and saying there had been a car accident. Reports of similar tactics since Trump took office have also provoked outcries.

"The fact that all of that is happening creates an air of impunity, and you'll find that creates an environment where people will prey on people who are fearful," says Moussavian, of the National Immigration Law Center. "You have people extorting people or intentionally trying to get something out of them because they suspect that nobody is going to suspect them or question their authority. It extends not just to ICE agents but to other bad actors."

The Justice Department generally does not comment on or confirm the presence of any ongoing investigation, and it referred questions about fraud complaints in which scammers pose as immigration officers to ICE directly.

ICE noted that anyone convicted of impersonating a federal agent or officer faces up to five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000.

Outreach groups, meanwhile, are telling immigrants who are in the country illegally to take extra precautions to make sure authorities are who they say they are.

"Ask if they have a warrant, ask them to slip it under the door, and ask them for a business card, because what else can we really do?" Schaufele, of Ayuda's Project END, says. "Even if they have an ICE business card, you may not be sure they're an agent, and you have a right to call the police. We're not sure how that would play out in practice, but what other choice do you have?"

Tags: Immigration,ICE,scam, crime, immigration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, New York, New York City, Washington, D.C.

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