By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

Millions of hopeful applicants around the world are once again getting ready for the annual American Dream lottery — for a Green Card. Last year, Internet scams marred the process, tricking thousands of hopefuls into paying $50 or more to enter the lottery, which is free. This year, the U.S. State Department will be running its own lottery Web site, but even as the Federal Trade Commission cracks down on Internet immigration scams, there’s still concerns about fee-based sites confusing or cheating Green Card seekers.

Green cards, or Permanent Resident Cards, are like gold to foreign nationals hoping to enter the United States. The document essentially grants its holder permanent right to live and work here; it offers far more rights than any U.S.-issued visa. Getting one generally requires a laborious process and often several years of waiting.

But each year, the Green Card lottery, also known as the Diversity Lottery, short-circuits the process, granting almost instant work rights to 50,000 applicants scattered around the globe.

With up to 10 million applicants each year, the slim odds work out to roughly 200-to-1. That doesn’t stop millions of people from every corner of the globe from trying.

Those odds have also caught the attention of Internet con artists. The Internet is peppered with Web sites offering to process Green Card lottery applications, usually for around $50 apiece. It’s perfectly legal, even if the actual value of the service provided is questionable. But many of the sites do all they can to imitate U.S. government Web sites in an attempt to lure confused international residents into forking over as much as $200. Other sites never really fill out the forms, or accept payment from applicants who aren’t even qualified to enter the lottery.

The sites are chock full of official-looking artwork, including White House and State Department logos, the American flag and images of bald eagles. Some even include misleading text such as “U.S.A Immigration Official Services” or “Official U.S. Government Program.”

Chris Bentley, spokesman for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, acknowledged that many Web sites are designed to mislead would-be Green Card applicants. A warning on the agency’s Web site tells applicants to avoid firms that claim any affiliation with the U.S. government.

“Just because someone says they are a representative of the U.S. government doesn’t mean they are,” he said. “There are still people looking to defraud you out of your money.”

FTC crackdown
But while the immigration agency issues the Green Cards, and the State Department administers the lottery, the job of stopping con artists falls to the Federal Trade Commission. Sites that intentionally mislead consumers run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission Act, says Reilly Dolan, the FTC’s assistant director of enforcement.

“There has to be a disclaimer that they are not affiliated with the U.S. government,” Dolan said. “And it has to be clear and conspicuous.”

A simple one-line disclaimer at the bottom of a Web site that is otherwise deceptive is not enough, Dolan said.

The FTC made that point clearly last week when it cracked down on one of the biggest Green Card lottery Web sites, operated by Global Web Solutions Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The firm ran USAIS.org, which included an American flag banner across the top of the site and logos of the U.S.A. Freedom Corps, the White House, and FirstGov on the home page, the FTC said. Contact phone numbers listed on the site were actually government telephone numbers that belong to the State Department, according to the agency.

There was a one-line disclaimer on the bottom of the site, Dolan said, but that wasn’t enough to escape FTC scrutiny.

“We look at the net impression,” he said.

The firm charged up to $250, promising to enter applicants in the Green Card lottery for up to 10 years.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has granted a temporary restraining order requested by the FTC against USAIS.org and its operators, prohibiting the firm from making further misrepresentations and freezing the company’s assets. The Web site is now offline.

An engineer at Microsoft Corp. who is Canadian, spent $180 at USAIS.org last year, hoping the site would help him earn a spot in the Green Card lottery. Canadians actually aren’t eligible for the lottery, but the site took his money anyway.

“I went to the site, it was a very professional site ... I was looking at this as a government site,” he said. “I should have put two and two together, but I’m pretty excited about becoming an American citizen.”

Soon after he submitted payment, he became suspicious, consulted an immigration attorney, and then found an MSNBC.com article written last year about Green Card Web sites.

“My common sense kicked in,” he said. After peppering the site with threatening e-mails, he did eventually get a refund.

Green card sites net big bucks
But apparently, many others did not. Until recently, USAIS.org was regularly among the top links for Google searches on Green Cards. That spot was allegedly worth big bucks to the couple arrested for operating the site, John Romano and Hoda M. Nofal. They made about $3 million with USAIS.org, according to Dolan. A report in the Sun-Sentinel, a Fort Lauderdale newspaper, indicated that the couple deposited about $3.5 million into the bank last year, paid off $739,000 in credit card debt and bought a $1.5 million waterfront mansion in Fort Lauderdale’s posh Las Olas Isles.

Fake immigration sites are indeed big business, said immigration attorney George Carenbauer, who has been complaining to the State Department about the sites for years.

“The size of the market is enormous,” Carenbauer said. Some Green Card companies regularly process 100,000 applications or more, he said. At $40 or more apiece, that’s big money.

His firm, Steptoe and Johnson, which also assists Green Card applicants for a fee, wants the State Department to license or endorse outside firms to process the applications — suggesting that such explicit endorsement would limit the effectiveness of less reputable immigration sites. The State Department, for its part, says the application process is easy and free, and generally recommends against paying for help filling out the forms.

Until last year, the lottery application process was simple, but awkward. There was no form, only guidelines issued by the State Department about the personal information that was to be submitted using a format of the applicant’s choice, along with very specific instructions on photograph requirements.

All those applications had to be mailed to a single post office in Lexington, Ky., and they had to arrive within a specific time window — usually about three weeks. Phil Lykins, spokesman for the Lexington post office, said in past years many companies would show up with mailbags full of applications.

“I called them re-shippers,” he said. “Last year there was a group from Germany. When they flew in here, there were five of them. They came in holding their luggage. And each suitcase they had was full of as many envelopes as they could stick in there. Well over 100,000 applications.”

There were at least eight companies, both domestic and international, that arrived with thousands of applications, he said.

“It’s a lot of money. And it’s easy paperwork for them,” he said.

New process,  new confusion?
Fear of application errors led many would-be immigrants to pay for Green Card application assistance from re-shippers, according to Carenbauer. This year, the State Department has switched to a Web-based application, largely to limit application fraud, said spokeman Stuart Pratt. Duplicate applications aren’t allowed, and special face-recognition software will be used to eliminate applicants who ignore that rule.

The Web site, www.dvlottery.state.gov, is not yet online but will be open for applications from Nov. 1 to Dec. 30.

Carenbauer said the new process might actually make things easier for con artists, since so many more applicants will be looking to apply online, and might land at a scam site instead of the State Department’s site. Asked if the new process will lead to more or less fraud, Pratt said “It’s hard to say.”

“You can never can minimize the ingenuity of scam artists,” he added.

Either way, there will still be confusion, Carenbauer said. Many applicants will be stumped by the very specific instructions required for submitting digital photos, he said. According to the State Department’s Web site, photos must be in JPEG format, 320 pixels wide by 240 pixels high, and a color depth of either 24-bit color, 8-bit color or 8-bit grayscale. Scanned images have their own set of instructions.

“I showed those to everyone in my office, and no one knew what they were talking about,” he said.

As a result, many sites will still be able to lure would-be immigrants into paying for services, he said.

The abrupt change in procedure will also challenge some applicants who live in unwired countries, he said, and could push others toward scam Web sites.

“It will be real difficult this year,” he said.

Pratt said the agency looked into the Internet access issue when it designed the new process, and learned that while there are still plenty of unwired homes, nearly every corner of the world now has Internet cafes that can be used to apply.

“There may be some people in places around the world not familiar with the computer and so they may need some help in learning how to operate the equipment in an Internet cafe,” he said. “But it can still be done pretty simply.”

How to avoid the scams
While it’s hard to tell the difference between scam sites and legitimate immigration Web sites, Dolan said applicants should avoid any site that tries to feign connection to the U.S. government. Applicants should also be wary of any site that charges a fee to enter the free lottery, he said.

“If the company is charging money, telling you they will help you, it’s at least a warning sign, because you are not going to improve chances by paying this company money,” he said. And because some of the scam sites accept accept applications from people who aren’t eligible for a Green Card, and others don’t even bother to fill out the paperwork, Dolan said “you could very well be spending your money on nothing.”

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