Last year, C.G., a 49-year-old Honduran immigrant living in Maryland, searched online and found a business that claimed it could help him obtain a green card, the coveted document that would allow him to live and work permanently in the U.S.
“The company told me that they were going to help me fix my status in this country,” C.G. (who agreed to an interview on condition that his name not be used) explained through an interpreter.
He said that in a video call on a messaging app, “they actually show you the green card, and they give you this promise that they’re going to give you your papers.” C.G. agreed to send them $10,000 by wire transfer, and the company provided him with a tracking number that he could use to follow the status of his application.
The company soon connected him with a man claiming to be an immigration officer, who told C.G. that his application had been approved. But there turned out to be a catch: The original $10,000 was just the application fee. To get the document, C.G. would have to pay the company another $15,000.
“I thought this was kind of fishy,” C.G. said. “It sounded like a scam.”
It was. He never received his green card or his $10,000 back.
Across the U.S., countless other members of ethnic communities are targeted by scammers, who seek to exploit potential victims’ lack of English fluency or unfamiliarity with how government agencies and businesses operate in this country. Some, like the company that took C.G.’s money, promise to provide shortcuts through immigration bureaucracy, in return for hefty fees, while others try to lure community members into cryptocurrency-related or other investment scams.
Criminals will also pose as government officials and threaten to have immigrants arrested and deported for imaginary crimes unless they pay up.
It's difficult to tell how many people from certain ethnic groups are being victimized by scams. Many such crimes go unreported, due to language barriers or victims’ reluctance to seek help from authorities or consumer watchdogs, explains Better Business Bureau (BBB) spokesman Josh Planos.
“When we do receive reports, they’re typically from family members who have more English and can translate,” he says. And scams in general are thought to be vastly underreported, due to victims’ feelings of shame and belief that authorities won't be able to help.
Juan Manuel Pedroza, an assistant professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Cruz, published a recent study on more than 2,300 immigration-related scams that were reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). He found that noncitizens were most likely to report scams in areas of the country where they had a support network of immigration law attorneys and advocacy groups, and felt welcomed by government policies.
“You're more likely to see people coming forward if they feel like their voice will be heard,” Padroza explains.