Immigration fraud in Canada, foreign workers should be cautious

Yet another instance:

When the video call ended, Rami Al-Americani felt confident he would get the job.

The four people who had interviewed him for a position at a Montreal-based construction company had asked him detailed questions, but Al-Americani owned and operated an engineering consulting firm in Lebanon. He knew he could do the work.

The address for Montreal Construction Group corresponds to a non-existent lot that would be in the middle of René-Lévesque Blvd., near Place Ville Marie. Workers in the area say they have never heard of the company. It isn’t real.A Montreal Gazette investigation has confirmed that the firm is part of a network of ghost companies concealing an elaborate immigration scam. Those who orchestrate the network use the prospect of living and working in Montreal, and in Canada, as a lure to target educated workers in the Middle East, gaining their trust with a lengthy application period before requesting money to pay for the immigration process.

The scam is convincing. The network operates under the guise of three interlinked companies: a recruitment agency, a construction firm and an immigration consultant firm. Multiple people act out different roles, from human resource representatives to hiring managers. The jobs they offer and the companies they purport to run are not real. They have websites that mimic those of real firms and use the stolen identities of real immigration consultants to assure victims of their legitimacy.

Those who fall victim to the scam have little recourse. The network exists largely in a jurisdictional vacuum online. Even when regulators do catch on, the network just shuts down and restarts under a new name.

“It’s a big network,” Al-Americani said. “It’s amazing that they took the time to do a fake website and some of them act as the recruitment, the other ones act as the company people, operations, HR. Another part acts as the immigration consultants.”

A chance for a job in Canada

For Al-Americani, it began in October 2019, when a woman who said her name was Mellissa Luke called him. She worked for a company called Nova Recruiters, based in Ottawa, she said, and wondered if he was interested in an opportunity to work in Canada. She sent along forms and arranged an interview with Montreal Construction Group.

The application process was thorough, Al-Americani recalled. He did several interviews, including one video call with four people.

“The people who interviewed me are people who understand construction,” he said. “I was interviewed by a so-called senior guy in operations and people who understand the terminology that we used in construction, who understand projects, so they prepared for it and they seemed professional.”

Between the initial phone call and the time Al-Americani was hired, a few weeks had passed. He filled out human-resources forms and Montreal Construction Group transferred him to Canada Immigration Hub, their approved immigration consultant, ostensibly based in Alberta. A man reached out. He said his name was Craig Jackson and that he was a certified immigration consultant. He sent along forms and asked for payment.

It worked. Al-Americani was hopeful about the move to Canada. He had researched the country and was tempted by the prospect of a good education for his children. The process was going to be expensive — Al-Americani knew that. He paid.

The money, $1,000 as an initial fee, was wired to a U.S. bank, which bothered Al-Americani. When he caught on to the scam, he seethed at the thought that someone could go to such lengths to prey on his family’s hopes of moving to Canada.

Others who have fallen — or nearly fallen — for the scam report noticing red flags, but sometimes ignoring them, blinded by the prospect of a new life abroad.

Eslam Emara, a Saudi man with 10 years of experience in transportation and logistics, caught on to the fraudsters. He was skeptical at every turn. He asked for proof of identity, scrutinized the companies’ websites, asked around on online forums and noticed holes in the Montreal Construction Group facade.

When the man calling himself Jackson asked for money, Emara said no. “That’s the time I had to say to them, ‘That’s bulls—. I’m not buying.’ ”

But it hurt him. A little part of him had been holding out hope, despite the red flags.

“It seems ridiculous, because I knew that it’s a fraud, but I was just dreaming on,” he said in a recent interview from Riyadh, uttering a laugh, then a sigh. He had hoped to immigrate to Canada with his wife and child. “It was one of our dreams to do something like this, so they gave us much disappointment.”

A convincing online network

The fake companies’ websites present a facade that at first is convincing to those targeted by the scammers.

But the slick sites don’t stand up to scrutiny. The Nova Recruiters site lists jobs that don’t exist. The Montreal Construction Group site is an exact imitation of a site belonging to a New Zealand company. It lists projects ostensibly completed by Montreal Construction Group that were completed by other firms. And the Canada Immigration Hub website features testimonials from satisfied clients — who aren’t real.

Raghib, from Saudi Arabia, says on the site: “No matter how easy or straightforward Canadian immigration process might look like, it isn’t easy at all. … After getting in touch with CIH, things were different and much better.”Surender, from Bangalore, says: “These people explained to me how studying in Canada can help me with my career and eventually getting a permanent residency.”

But the photo for Surender is really a stock image, available online, titled “Portrait of a middle-aged Indian with folded hands.” The photo of Raghib is another stock image: “Horizontal portrait of young smiling Arab man.”

Perhaps the most convincing tactic used by Canada Immigration Hub is the name of the person they use to contact their potential victims: Craig Jackson.

An identity stolen with impunity

Craig Jackson is a real immigration consultant, registered with the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC), a non-profit organization that has been mandated by the federal government to regulate immigration advising services. But he does not work for Canada Immigration Hub. The fraudsters used his identity to gain their victims’ trust.

The real Craig Jackson said he began receiving emails in late 2019 and early 2020 from people who were being strung along by Montreal Construction Group, signalling that his name was being used as part of an elaborate fraud.

“My initial reaction was of outrage and anger, followed by wonder,” Jackson said. “(I) was curious as to why they targeted my identity.”

The ICCRC had advised him to report the fraud to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) — so he did.Al-Americani also reported the fraud. He emailed the Canadian embassy in Beirut, but received a generic response. Emara said he was considering reporting the scam to Saudi police.

But the international nature of the scam hinders law enforcement efforts.

Jeff Thomson, a senior RCMP intelligence analyst at the CAFC, said well-trained, resourceful groups are likely behind the Montreal Construction Group fraud.

“People ask, ‘Who’s behind this stuff?’ It’s organized crime at the end of the day,” Thomson said. “When you look at the level of organization involved — the multiple countries where the money is going, the websites — the sophistication, the steps they set up to run the scams.”

The CAFC has received multiple complaints about Montreal Construction Group, but Canadian authorities lack the ability to investigate and prosecute those behind the fraud, in part because there is little connecting the perpetrators to Canada.

“What we see with a lot of these things is oftentimes the fraudsters use Canadian government entities or business names … but none of the money ends up coming here,” Thomson said. “They’re just using Canadian entities because people want to come to Canada for our reputation.”

Though the Montreal Construction Group fraudsters — and others like them — often avoid prosecution, Canadian authorities can make it more expensive for them to do business by targeting their websites and bank accounts.

But immigration fraud is rampant. It keeps the authorities busy, and shutting down websites and bank accounts only delays the scammers. They tend to crop back up.An Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson said in a statement that the government had earmarked $51 million to improve enforcement and public awareness of immigration fraud and establish systems to better crack down on fraudulent immigration consultants.

“The government of Canada takes any kind of citizenship or immigration fraud seriously,” the statement reads. “Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada urges clients to use the official departmental website to obtain information about its programs in order to avoid becoming victims of fraud.”

An ICCRC spokesperson said the agency could not investigate the activity of those who had impersonated Jackson, because the perpetrators were not real immigration consultants. But he said the organization was aware of the situation: “We’ve been looking into the matter and are working with enforcement authorities to combat these schemes.” He also said criminal fraud of the kind displayed by the Montreal Construction Group scams is rare, but that the ICCRC is slated to soon become a new body that would have more power to prevent such fraud.

A hidden network

It is unclear who is behind the fraud, but banking information from an account associated with the fraud points to a man named Nabeel Ahmed, ostensibly living in Wichita, Kan. Phone records also link the listed number for Montreal Construction Group — a Montreal landline — to a man named Nabeel Ahmed.

In 2012, Windsor police arrested a man they said was a prolific fraudster named Nabeel Ahmed, who had a criminal history of committing identity and credit card fraud. He was convicted on fraud-related charges and was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
The Montreal Gazette could not confirm that the Nabeel Ahmed convicted in Windsor is the same person linked to the fraud-connected bank account and the Montreal landline. Attempts to reach Nabeel Ahmed were unsuccessful.

One of the fake company websites — the Nova Recruiters site — is listed as registered to someone in Ontario, suggesting the fraudsters may have some physical connection to Canada, but besides that, little is known about their physical location.

A game of whack-a-mole

Even if authorities succeed in shutting down Montreal Construction Group’s website, or if enough people catch on to the scam, those behind it may well restart the scam under a new company.

A Montreal Gazette analysis has found that an eerily similar fraud network operated in the spring of 2019 — before the Montreal Construction Group scam. The earlier scam offered victims employment on Canada’s West Coast instead of in Montreal, but the similarities between the operations suggest that those who run the Montreal Construction Group scheme have experience rebuilding their network when officials begin to catch on to them.

The earlier scam used the same methods as Montreal Construction Group, and much of the language the fraudsters use in emails from both the old and the new scam is identical.

Instead of Montreal Construction Group, the earlier scam used Richmond Construction Group. Instead of Nova Recruiters, the earlier scam used Oakville Recruiters. Instead of Canada Immigration Hub, the earlier scam used Canada Shores.
Instead of Craig Jackson, the fraudsters impersonated Gregory Batt, another registered immigration consultant.

The real Gregory Batt said he began receiving emails and phone calls in late April 2019 from people asking him when they would receive their permanent residence. “All the guys who contacted me were well educated and articulate, mostly engineers,” he said. “I told all the folks who contacted me that they had been cheated, that Canada Shores was a fake company.”

Ahmed Rashed, an experienced purchase manager from Saudi Arabia who nearly fell for the Richmond Construction Group scam, said the organization and co-ordination astounded him. He was close to paying an initial $1,000 fee to immigrate to Canada, but had a friend in Vancouver check the address of Richmond Construction Group. There was no company.

“I deal with the internet all the time and I was about to fall for this,” Rashed said. “You know why they chose Canada? They chose Canada because they know everybody likes Canada. … That will help them to fool more people. This is because Canada has a good reputation.”

Dreaming of Canada

While wrapped up in the scam, victims spend weeks — sometimes more than a month — planning to move their families, their lives, to a new country.

For Al-Americani, the loss of the $1,000 he paid is secondary to the pain of having his immigration hopes dashed.

“For a month and a half we were living this dream of going to Montreal and having this new life,” he said, “and having our kids become Canadians and ourselves becoming Canadians.”

When he came to the realization that the company was a lie — that there was no job offer, no prospect of working in Canada — Al-Americani was crushed. “We felt really bad about it,” he said. “For like two, three weeks we were depressed.”

The scam also tends to leave its victims distrustful of immigration processes. But Al-Americani is still holding out hope. He said his family has recently begun once more to mull over the idea of coming to Canada.

“You know, it’s been a few days since it’s passed through my head to do the process a second time,” he said. “I think we’re going to do it.”

No one answers the phones at any of the fake companies and, as of publication, their websites are still active.

Source:  Immigration fraud in Canada, foreign workers should be cautious

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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