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Document and Benefit Fraud

Virginia woman sentenced to 6 years in prison for student visa scam

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A Virginia woman was sentenced to 6 years in prison Friday after pleading guilty in June to two counts of mail and wire fraud following an investigation by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Department of Homeland Security-Office of the Inspector General.

Mary Ann Smith, 42, was charged with operating a business in Virginia that purported to assist individuals in obtaining student visas for an ongoing series of fees. Two of Smith's thirty-four identified victims are residents of Memphis. Smith had contacted the Memphis area victims in February 2009 via email 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 charged her victims an initial fee of approximately $6,500 per student, and later, after assuring her victims that the visas were being processed, sought fees to cover the students' airline tickets.

Subsequently, she sought fees from the victims for various types of insurance, including "swine flu insurance." The scheme involved the use of false documents that appeared to originate from the U.S. Secretary of State and from United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). The scheme also used a spoofing service that enabled Smith to call her victims and make it appear as if she was calling from USCIS.

Memphis area victims, who sought to sponsor four relatives for student visas, lost more than $40,000 to Smith. One of the Memphis area victims told the court her family members overseas sold their house and their car to make the payments charged by Smith. Total losses suffered by the collective victims exceeded $200,000.

Citing the vulnerability of Smith's victims, who were generally unsophisticated with respect to U.S. law and desperate to help family members get to the United States, the judge varied above the sentencing guidelines of 41 to 51 months, choosing to sentence Smith to 72 months (6 years). The judge also ordered Smith to make restitution to the victims. As part of Smith's plea agreement, she agreed to disclose the existence of and forfeit any assets derived from her crime.

"Immigration benefit fraud schemes that take advantage of unwitting foreign nationals seeking to lawfully come to the United States erode the integrity of our immigration system," said Raymond R. Parmer, Jr., special agent in charge of ICE HSI in New Orleans. "These schemes are an extremely lucrative form of white-collar crime that is complex and challenging to investigate and prosecute. We are committed to ensuring that our nation's security is not breached in this manner." Parmer oversees a five-state area which includes Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.

"The United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Tennessee will vigorously prosecute those that take advantage of unsuspecting citizens through these types of fraudulent and unlawful schemes," stated U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton, III. "This scheme not only had a devastating and adverse effect on victims living in the U.S. but those living abroad as well. The decision to go above the sentencing guidelines by the United States District Court should send a clear message that these types of crimes, even though they are classified as white collar, can carry severe consequences."

Assistant United States Attorney John Fabian handled the case for the government.

For more information, visit www.ice.gov.