NEW DELHI, India — It’s a simple equation: India has millions of tech geeks who would love to work in the US.
But they need visas.
And the US issues just 65,000 of these per year, under its so-called H-1B program for high-skilled workers.
For freelance techies, the temptation is overwhelming.
And that, naturally, has opened up a world of opportunity for fraudsters.
Hundreds of small companies in India and the US claim to be able to arrange an H-1B visa — for the right price. Some Indians hand over money and never see the broker again — a scam similar to the loan brokerage racket featured in the movie “American Hustle.”
True, most H1-B visas go to Indians, but the majority of these are snapped up by big outsourcing firms like Cognizant, Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys.
That only serves to amp up the desperation felt by freelance techies.
Some are lucky enough to get a visa — only to find that the promised job in the US doesn’t materialize. Then the visa holders are forced to return to India after spending thousands of dollars just surviving.
No official figures are available for the number of frauds in India, but an unclassified document released by Wikileaks showed that in 2009, US consular officials cited H-1B scams as one of the two most common fraud categories in India.
Jaspal Singh, a Delhi-based software professional, told GlobalPost that in 2010 he fell victim to a New York-based company called IT Holdings Inc.
“They took $2,500 from me for visa filing, but they did not file anything,” he said. “After few months they refunded $500.”
Singh was not the only victim. Nitin Mohan, also from Delhi, lost $1,000 to IT Holdings Inc in Jun 2010, he told GlobalPost. After months spent trying to persuade them to refund his money, he eventually posted a thread on Trackitt, an immigration site. Four other people came forward with similar stories.
Although Mohan tried to file a criminal complaint, attempts to contact the New York Police Department from India proved fruitless. He has written off his loss. The IT Holdings Inc website is defunct and a phone number listed as its main contact point is not in service.
“They just disappeared,” Mr Mohan said. “They could be out there acting as a different company and nobody would know.”
Another victim claims to have lost $3,400 to a company that promised to file an H-1B application but vanished instead. Others say they are promised free or cheap training when they arrive in the US, but this was either substandard or never materialize.
Rajiv Dabhadkar, the chief executive of the National Organization for Software and Technology Professionals (NOSTOPS), has been campaigning for better conditions for IT workers for more than a decade.
“Between 25 and 40 people write to me every week saying they would like to get to the US and asking which company we could recommend,” he said. “These companies are a major problem. The main difference now is that it has become so much more expensive to get H-1B visas. The visa process fees have increased a lot.” Immigration officials ask more questions and check documents more thoroughly than in the past, he added.
While there’s little evidence that the Indian government has pursued the matter, in the US federal officers have had some success in fraud investigations over the last few years.
- In March 2013, the founders of a Texas-based company called Dibon Solutions were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud. Court documents filed by prosecutors claimed the brothers, Atul and Jiten Nanda (and four of their employees), had recruited Indian workers on the pretence they would work at the company headquarters in Carrollton, Texas. Instead, they were hired out to other companies. (Attempts to contact the company were unsuccessful.)
- In a separate investigation, Phani Raju Bhima Raju, an Indian national based in Charlotte, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to five federal charges relating to H-1B visa fraud. His company, iFuturistics, made an estimated $13.2 million in six years by persuading Indians to pay for their H-1B visas and work in the US. “On one occasion a foreign national H-1B visa holder had paid $2,500 to iFuturistics as a security deposit for processing her H-1B visa,” according to a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman in a press release. She was promised a salary of $60,000 but “iFuturistics never provided the worker with any work assignments and failed to pay her any wages.”
- Federal investigators arrested 11 people in 2009 on suspicion of a similar scam. Vision Systems, a New Jersey company, faced forfeitures of $7.4 million for placing foreign workers in jobs they weren’t entitled to do, replacing American workers. After a plea bargain, the two brothers who ran the firm were given three years’ probation for unlawfully hiring aliens and paid restitution of $236,250 to the US Citizenship and Immigration Service.
Efforts to deal with the problem in India are limited. Data on attempted visa fraud are not collected by the Indian Government or any of the bodies that represent tech companies.
US officials in India make regular reports about fraudulent attempts to get visas. These are not ordinarily published, but Wikileaks released a 2009 paper titled “India Semi-Annual Fraud Update.”
At the time, according to the report, the vast majority of fraudulent applications came from the southern city of Hyderabad. Officers investigated 150 companies in the city and discovered that 77 percent “turned out to be fraudulent or highly suspect.”
Officials uncovered a scheme where Hyderabadis were claiming to work for made-up companies in Pune so the Mumbai consulate would be less suspicious about their applications. “The Hyderabadis claimed that they had opened shell companies in Bangalore because ‘everyone knows Hyderabad has fraud and Bangalore is reputable,’” according to the internal communiqué.
Ameet Nivsarkar, vice president of global trade development for NASSCOM, the trade association for Indian IT companies, said: “Unfortunately this does cause problems for the industry because of the way they operate. They throw the entire H-1B programme into disrepute. This is a legitimate industry that has a legitimate use of the H-1B program.”