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Document and Benefit Fraud
06/20/2011

Virginia woman pleads guilty to student visa scam

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - A Virginia woman pleaded guilty on Monday to two counts of a multi-count indictment charging mail fraud and wire fraud arising from a student visa brokerage scam. The case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Mary Ann Smith, 42, was charged with operating a business out of Virginia that purported to be able to assist individuals obtain student visas for a fee. In February 2009, Smith came into contact with two residents of the Memphis area and sent e-mails to them describing a nonexistent student visa program in which the U.S. government supposedly exchanged students with foreign countries on a one-for-one basis. Smith falsely told the Memphis victims that their relatives could obtain student visas and that, five years after the victims' relatives obtained student visas, the visa holders could become U.S. permanent residents. Smith told them that she could provide these services at a cost of $6,480 per applicant, and that the processing time was six to eight months. Smith persuaded the victims to sign contracts to "sponsor" four of their relatives and in February 2009. The victims mailed four checks totaling $25,920 to Smith at her Virginia business, International Business Network Inc.

Over the next three months, Smith made various claims to the victims that their relatives' documents were being processed and that Smith had obtained "school confirmation" for the victims' family members.

In April 2009, Smith falsely told the victims that "immigration" needed to see that airline tickets had been purchased for the student visa applicants and that the tickets needed to be purchased from a company "authorized by immigration." Smith told the victims to send her $2,180 per ticket, and the victims sent her more than $13,000 for airline tickets. The victims never received any airline tickets. In addition, though Smith told the victims she had obtained "school confirmation" for their family members, at least two of the schools the relatives were supposedly going to attend never received any application from or for any of the victims' relatives.

In May 2009, Smith sent the victims an email stating that once the student visa applicants paid for certain insurance, she could contact immigration and inform them that the victims' documents were ready. Although U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) does not in fact place any insurance requirement on individuals seeking student visas, Smith sought more than $11,000 from the victims for medical and health travel insurance.

Ultimately, the victims became suspicious that Smith was unable to provide the services they had paid her for, and they made complaints to the Tennessee and Virginia offices of Consumer Affairs and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Shortly thereafter, ICE learned of the scam and opened an investigation that resulted in the criminal charges against Smith.

At her guilty plea hearing, Smith admitted using a "spoofing" service that allowed her to make phone calls to the Memphis victims and both alter her voice and make it appear that the phone calls originated from USCIS. Smith used the service to make her victims believe that their documents were being processed by USCIS when, in fact, they were not.

"Quite simply, America's immigration system is not for sale," said Raymond R. Parmer Jr., special agent in charge of ICE HSI in New Orleans. "ICE works closely with USCIS and our other partners to ensure that those who seek to enrich themselves by compromising the integrity of our nation's legal immigration system pay a price for their crimes." Parmer oversees a five-state area which includes Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Although Smith pleaded guilty to only two counts, all of the charged conduct will be taken into account as relevant conduct at her sentencing, which is scheduled for Sept. 21. In addition, Smith agreed to disclose the existence of and forfeit any assets derived from her crime.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Fabian, Western District of Tennessee, is prosecuting this case.