Inside the world of immigration scams

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For this month’s Econ Extra Credit, we’re exploring the documentary series “Telemarketers.” The three-part docuseries follows two friends and former call center employees who work together to expose their seedy past employer, Civic Development Group, and the larger telemarketing industry.

While on the subject, we decided to look at this murky sector through another angle: telemarketing scams specifically targeting immigrants.

Criminals use complex immigration law as well as immigration status against their victims, says Juan Manuel Pedroza, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“These scams happen because people are looking for answers and help to adjust your legal status,” said Pedroza, who has researched immigration scams.

Marketplace’s David Brancaccio spoke with Pedroza about the nature of these scams and how to deter them from happening. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: I want to start out with a case that I think has come across your desk. This is a scam that invited people to what? Get English language lessons that actually had a long tail. Tell me about that a little bit.

Juan Manuel Pedroza: Yeah, so if you’re in the U.S., and you’re trying to do right by your visions for what you’re gonna be doing the United States, you want to learn English, get a good paying job, maybe start a family. That’s the idea; that’s the dream. And in this case, part of what this company was doing was selling English language learning tools. And it looked pretty straightforward. You sign up for classes, you get underway to work on your language skills. And then it turns out that there’s a lot of conditions along the way that you didn’t know upfront. And pretty soon it starts to get to the point where you’re not only in English language class, all of a sudden, the company is starting to demand money and making threats against you. And then very quickly, it’s clear that it was a scam from the beginning, to get people hooked in with the promise of helping with language. But really, the plan all along was to extort people in a scheme that that was targeting a lot of immigrant families and a lot of people who just wanted to learn English.

Brancaccio: I mean this is emblematic of the special case of new immigrants who, for good reasons, often may not want to turn to authorities for help if they feel they have been ripped off. And here are companies set up to target this group in particular.

Pedroza: That’s right, and we think about this in terms of multiple barriers. First, you have to know that you have a right to fair treatment in the marketplace, you have to know that you have the ability to report consumer crimes, to at a minimum get your money back. So that’s the first barrier. Next step is, do you trust that if you do say speak to the authorities, or someone in a Better Business Bureau, is that information going to be treated with care or listened to at all? If you come from a country where that’s not the kind of thing that you’re used to doing or it’s not safe to report these kinds of crimes, maybe you keep it to yourself. So there’s multiple steps where you have to get beyond, “This happened to me and I feel safe reporting it.” And those are not trivial hurdles you have to get past.

Brancaccio: And are there efforts by watchdogs, government watchdogs, regulators to get the word out to often non-English-speaking populations that there can be recourse and also to be vigilant, to watch out for these scams?

Pedroza: Yes, there are. And this is one of the encouraging trends that we’re seeing the range of people that are getting the word out about different kinds of scams. Immigration laws are so complex that it seems like there’s endless numbers of new innovative scams targeting people depending on what’s happening on a given day. So you’re talking about the American Bar Association, local nonprofits, the American Immigration Lawyers Association. All of these have awareness campaigns targeting fraud and scams — things like fake websites, fake lawyers. It’s gotten to the point where the Federal Trade Commission at the federal level and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — both arms of law enforcement at the federal level — have put out information on government imposters, people who are pretending to be border patrol and calling people at their home. So, in terms of getting the word out, I think we’re in a much better place than we used to be in the past. And of course, you then have to back up the awareness with service delivery, translation services, and making sure that people understand that these are crimes and that you can get your documents back and get your money back. And most importantly, we can try to put a stop to the kinds of scams that could target even more people in the future.

Brancaccio: I mean you can try to get your money back, right? It’s a problem for immigrants and nonimmigrants who find themselves victimized — it’s often hard to recover.

Pedroza: Yeah. And if you look at the efforts by, for example, the Federal Trade Commission, they’ve had a few really successful cases, where they’ve been able to get millions of dollars refunded to hundreds or thousands of clients who got scammed. But you’re right, yeah, it’s not like that’s the most common outcome. A lot of people do end up having to live with the money that they lost. Interestingly, if you look at the complaints of people who come forward to say, “Telemarketer called me,” or “I was talking to someone who I thought was lawyer and turned out to be fake,” the majority of those cases, they’re really interested in getting the word out. So that even if they can’t get their documents or their money back, that their neighbor or someone else in the community doesn’t also get targeted.

How communities are fighting back

Brancaccio: You making a key point here, right? Tighter-knit communities, community organizations, they form a network to get that information out.

Pedroza: That’s right. And just as scam artists rely on word-of-mouth services and meeting people in local neighborhoods and making promises that sound too good to be true. On the other side, you do have people trying to get the word out. The organization’s I’ve found doing the best work here are the Immigration Advocates Network. This is a network of local organizations across the country. And that network has a legal directory where you can look up, is there an organization in my zip code that’s used to working with my kinds of cases and my immigration case, in my language? And do I pay a nominal fee? Or is it pro-bono? And it’s those kinds of really tight knit networks and local service delivery that can help people try to figure out, “What are my options legally?” And in some cases, I suspect, if you go to a trusted community organization, you might then find out that the person that you were used to dealing with was not on the up-and-up.

Brancaccio: Yeah, I mean, a very diverse community, when we say immigrants. Many different languages spoken, people coming to this country with different levels of acquaintance with what the rules are in the United States, and what the protections are. It adds complexity in this fight against these scammers.

Pedroza: That’s right. And this is a diverse and growing immigrant community that we’re talking about. One out of five people in the U.S. was not born in this country. About half of immigrants are currently not citizens. And if you’re thinking that immigration is a problem from Mexico, for example, which is where I’m from, that’s actually on the decline. So we have to get creative about recognizing that even though the Mexican immigrant community is still one of the largest groups in the U.S., it is growing and getting more diverse, the immigrant community. These scams happen because people are looking for answers and help to adjust your legal status. This could be someone who doesn’t have authorization to live and work in the country, it could be someone who has temporary protected status, it could be someone who’s looking at a green card that might be expiring. So if you’re looking for answers and help for those kinds of cases, and someone scams you, it’s immediately clear to the person you’re reporting to that you might be in a vulnerable, temporary or irregular legal status living in this country. So the trust really does have to be there. And another wrinkle here is the immigrant population is aging in a way that we hadn’t seen before. So that’s something else to keep in mind — diversity in terms of which countries people are coming from, but also the age distribution of the community is changing too.

Those looking to help and those looking to take advantage

Brancaccio: Yeah, in the context of evidence that some people, when they age, become more vulnerable to financial exploitation of various forms — that can be an association in some people with aging.

Pedroza: Unfortunately, that’s the case. And what’s to stop a scam artist who is learning how to really hone their craft in the Hispanic immigrant aging population, what’s to stop someone from using the skills and the information they’ve learned through those scams from turning around and targeting the general U.S. population? I don’t want to give scam artists any ideas, but I think we can see the potential for harm there in terms of Treasury scams, telemarketing scams against the older population in the U.S. in general.

Brancaccio: Last thing, was there a specific catalyst for you? I mean, this is an interesting area of research for a sociologist. Did you see something in your life that opened your eyes to the dangers of this that prompted you to want to gather data? Or was it sort of an accumulation of experience that led you in this direction?

Pedroza: Well, personally for me and people in my family and people that I grew up with, many of us were on the outside looking in terms of our legal status, and waiting very eagerly for news about what we might be able to do, to get in line to address our status, knowing that it wasn’t that simple. And there was no line. In back in the early 2000s, when there was a little bit of a hope of the passage of a DREAM Act or potentially broader pathways to legalization, we thought that there might be hope to establish the fact that we’ve been in the U.S. for a while, could prove that we’ve been living here, could prove that we’d been contributing to society. So we — personally, I got an ID at the Mexican consulate. And in the sort of style that we’re used to here in the U.S. for decades, where you establish your first papers, right? Here’s who I am, here’s where I’ve been living, I’m a Mexican national. And in that process — very hopeful at the time — I ran into a couple of people who were trying to sell business cards and pens to those of us filling out applications. And in that moment, I realized, “Wait a minute, for all of the talk in the hope that there might be something opening up in the future, there are people waiting to help” — and that’s important — “but there are also people waiting who look like they’re trying to help, but they’re really just trying to make a buck and could be running away with your money and running away with your immigration documents.” And that’s the kind of thing that I saw up close and I wanted to make sure that we talked about how this could be affecting other people.

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