The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has granted the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) request for a temporary restraining order to close eight Internet sites allegedly misleading consumers into believing the sites, for a fee, could help consumers register for the State Department’s annual Diversity Visa (DV) lottery for a chance to apply for a permanent resident visa widely known as a green card.
The FTC also claims the sites misled consumers into believing they were affiliated with the U.S. government.
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, Fla., the FTC is seeking permanent injunctive relief and redress.
Under the Immigration Act of 1990, the DV 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.
From millions of qualifying applicants, the State Depart. 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 DVs 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 Depart. Web site.
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, D.C., along with a passport-size photograph of the applicant and any spouse and unmarried children who are under 21. Fees ranged from $40 to $70 for submitting an application for one year to $150 or $250 for 10 years.
Also, 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, and the official seals and logos of, and links to, the USA Freedom Corps, the White House, and FirstGov on the home page.
The FTC further contends the defendants claimed to use actual government telephone numbers that actually belong to the State Dept. They also listed a Washington, D.C. address that, in fact, is a commercial mail store.
According to the FTC 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. They also 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.
“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.”
Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for Consular Affairs, added, “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.”