Diversity visa lottery leaves a trail of scams

by Lindsay Guentzel

While the Diversity Visa Lottery ended on Dec. 2, the e-mail scam that targeted its applicants is still causing problems – and has been since the program’s creation.

The program, which is run by the U.S. Department of State, was started under the Immigration Act of 1990 and provides 50,000 permanent resident visas annually to people from countries with low U.S. immigration rates. Each year, e-mail scams are sent out to lottery applicants advertising the chance at better odds, but for a price.

There are application processes for other visas, but using the lottery is cheaper because the applicant doesn’t need a lawyer.

Charles Miller, an employee in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs, said the Federal Trade Commission is investigating the scam.

Duane Rohovit, an International Student and Scholar Services associate counselor, said many applicants paid for services, including lawyers and visa specialists who would fill out the application for them, increasing their chances of winning.

Applicants should be aware that paying for help will not increase their chances of being chosen, he said.

“We just try to get the word out that it’s a computerized lottery,” he said. “Nobody has the ability to make anyone more likely to be chosen.”

Many of the e-mails advertised lawyers or special strategies that would increase a person’s chances of winning, Rohovit said. Some even had personal success stories from people who had used the organizations’ services.

“That’s basically what these groups are selling,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘hire us and we’ll make you win.’ “

Rohovit said he knew some international students who had fallen for the scam, but since no one knows who is running it, there is little they can do.

“It was just an expensive lesson, I fear,” he said.

In 2006, 6.4 million qualified applicants applied for the visa during the 60-day application period, which ran from Oct. 3 to Dec. 2. To qualify for the visa, applicants need to have a high school education or show two years of work experience that required at least two years of training.

Rohovit said anyone who doesn’t look at the e-mails critically is vulnerable to be scammed, regardless if he or she is an international student.

“Somebody who is new to the culture, new to the system, might be more vulnerable,” he said. “But I mean, how many Americans fall for the Nigerian princes scam?”

Former University student Gavin Hart, who is from Venezuela, said the University’s One Stop Web site puts students at risk because their information is available to the public.

While the public can see that information, the U.S. government doesn’t know how scammers obtained the lottery information.

“They have to get that information from some database,” Hart said. “That’s one of the weaknesses of having this kind of process, because people get desperate and they pay for it.”

International students who come to the United States want to comply with everything so they allow the information to be public without understanding the consequences, he said.

“A lot of people don’t pay attention to that,” he said.

Hart said he knew a University student who applied for the visa lottery, but had to return to Colombia before he found out the results because his student visa ran out.

Since legal fees during the visa process are expensive, students might be more inclined to use the lottery system, Hart said.

Hart, who lives on the University’s St. Paul campus, said immigration issues, including visa scams, are prominent in his community, where a lot of international students and scholars live.

“In our community, that’s the only conversation,” he said.