What's Up With Visa Lottery Assistance Sites?

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Each year, the U.S. Department of State issues 50,000 green cards through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, sometimes called the "green card lottery." It's free to apply, but a slew of online companies of dubious provenance offer to assist applicants for a healthy fee.

The State Department recommends avoiding them, which is something that Christine Buchhorn of South Africa wish she knew before a company operating out of a Houston PO box deducted more than a month's salary from her bank account before she knew what was going on. She reached out to us for help, and since we have a special place in our heart for multi-national companies working out of strip mall mailbox stores, we thought we'd check it out.

Buchhorn, who works at a government-run hospital, was hoping to work at a more advanced medical facility in the States, so she looked online for information about the green card lottery. That's when she found USAGC.org, with offices listed in Houston, Cyprus, and Istanbul.

"They looked legitimate. It sounded promising," Buchhorn told us. She filled out the application and later got a call from a representative who said "that she will help me to obtain a green card. At no point during the conversation did she mention that money will be deducted off my bank account."

But, Buchhorn says, she later received a text from her bank, urging her to call. When she did, she found out that 25,000 rand (about $2,200) had been debited from her account.

"That amount is a lot more than my monthly salary and I have been living way below my means since then," Buchhorn says. "I can't even afford to get the basics like food as my bank account is overdrawn." She says she hasn't been able to reach anyone from the company in order to dispute the charge.

Fortunately, we were able to reach a customer service manager right away. We made sure to apply with USAGC first. It's a simple online application -- so simple that we applied twice and were accepted both times, despite the fact that we claimed to have been born in Bahrain, with a main phone number in Bangladesh and a cell number in the Cook Islands. (Our original application included a phone number in Wallis and Futuna, which we thought was an old vaudeville duo but turns out to be a French-controlled island in the South Pacific).

All we had to do next was decide which package to choose -- we could pay to have USAGC submit applications on our behalf for 1, 2, 4, or 10 years, running us between $73-$556.

We heard from the customer service manager right away. She told us her name was Lisa Miller, and that she was in Tel Aviv.

We asked her a couple questions based on the Federal Trade Commission's fraud warning on visa lottery scams, and a general "10 Ways to Avoid Fraud" guideline. The former suggests that lottery scammers might "charge you money to help you apply." The latter includes a suggestion to "find a seller's physical address (not a P.O. Box)."

Miller acknowledged that applying for the lottery is free, but that many people turn to USGCA because they lack the English skills to properly apply.

"We offer total immigration services...we are not only a green card organization," Miller told us. This includes selling "products" that help people learn English.

Miller also said they have a strict screening process and won't register ineligible applicants. So we asked her why they accept applications so easily.

"We don't accept applications so easily," she said. When we told her that, yeah, actually the company does, because our Wallis and Futuna asses were already accepted, she told us that "it would obviously be checked" once the payment was received.

However, Miller did express concern for Buchhorn's complaint and said she would review Buchhorn's application to see if there was anything she could do.

She also explained that USAGC kept a Houston PO box "Because we also have clients that do reside in the states. For example, there are many people who are students who apply for student visas."

A State Department official told us the Department "strongly discourage[s]" the use of sites like USAGC, and says that the application process accommodates 15 languages. If someone speaks a language that is not offered on the State Department's site, the applicant should contact their local consulate.

In 2006, a State Department spokesman told MSNBC that not all lottery companies are fraudulent, but "There is no need to pay anyone to make the entry for you. There is absolutely no advantage to going through any such service."

A spokesperson for the Texas Attorney General's Office said the office has received 10 complaints about USAGC in the last five years.

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