— A new report
by the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Inspector General says organized fraud rings masquerading as travel agencies have taken control of the Diversity Visa program in Ukraine.
The report, released Friday, outlines a pervasive and sophisticated fraud scheme affecting the U.S. visa lottery program as well as the intimidation and extortion of Ukrainian citizens.
The United States awards 55,000 Diversity Visas annually to the citizens of countries with historically low immigration rates to the U.S. They are granted through a random lottery system that does not take into account the applicants’ family relations, professional or personal background.
The fraud rings “buy, steal, or obtain from public sources personal information about Ukrainian citizens,” the report says.
The OIG does not identify which groups are carrying out the fraud, but says they have a vast impact. The U.S. embassy in Kyiv estimates the groups are entering the names of as much as 80 percent of the population of western Ukraine into the online visa program, and continuing to enter them year after year. This happens often without the citizens’ permission or knowledge, preventing them from entering the visa lottery on their own because the computer system deletes duplicate applications.
The fraud rings then have access to the confirmation number assigned online to the visa applicants, so if the U.S. State Department grants a visa to one of the applicants, only the criminals can facilitate the process.
The OIG report says the criminals then contact the hundreds of Ukrainians selected and demand they sign a contract promising to pay up to $15,000 to get the confirmation number to pursue the immigrant visa application.
If the Ukrainian wants to pursue the visa but cannot afford the fee, the criminals may insist he or she enter a sham marriage with someone who wants to immigrate to the U.S. and has enough money to pay the fraud ring. The criminals might even demand the visa winner get a divorce from their actual spouse and get married to someone else willing to pay.
The extortion does not end when the visa is awarded and the Ukrainian moves to the U.S. According to the OIG, the criminal groups take control of the immigrant’s U.S. social security card and social security number for further exploitation. They also demand the new immigrants pay back the costs incurred by the fraud rings to get them to the U.S. Failure to pay, the OIG, says, has resulted in threats against relatives in Ukraine.
U.S. officials have made efforts to combat the fraud
, including changing the interview questions to try to trip up applicants coached by the criminal gangs, but corruption persists.