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A Florida husband and wife team operating a green card lottery immigration scam has been sentenced to jail and their eight Web sites shut down. In addition to the criminal actions, the defendants were hit with a $2.2 million fine for consumer redress.
John Romano of Fort Lauderdale was sentenced to 37 months in prison Friday after pleading guilty to mail fraud in connection with the scam. His wife, Hoda Nofal, previously pled guilty to obstruction of the mails and was sentenced to six months in prison.
Last October, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged Romano and Nofal with operating Web sites that misled consumers into believing the sites, for a fee, could help immigrants register for the State Department's annual Diversity Visa (DV) lottery.
The FTC also charged that Romano and Nofal misled immigrants into believing the sites were affiliated with the federal government.
Romano and Nofal conducted business as USA Immigration Services, US Immigration Online, USAIS, and USIO, according to the FTC. The two masqueraded as a U.S. government agency by using deceptive Web addresses, metatags and government seals and logos.
By using both keyword metatags and express language on the Web sites, USAIS claimed to be either an official agency of, or affiliated with, the U.S. government. The metatags typically led unwitting consumers to USAIS's sites on the Internet through the use of search engines.
The Web site featured an official-looking eagle and a billowing flag banner across the top of the site, American iconic images, such as the Statue of Liberty, and the official seals and logos of, and links to, the USA Freedom Corps, the White House, and FirstGov on the home page.
When consumers reached the bogus sites, they were prompted to enter certain biographical information along with a credit card number to pay the required fee. Once the fee was paid, customers were directed to print out the application form and mail it to the company's address in Washington, D.C.
Fees ranged from $40 to $70 for submitting an application for one year to $150 or $250 for 10 years.
There is no fee to enter the DV lottery.
"This case is a red light for fraudulent green card operators and an excellent example of the effectiveness of enforcement partnerships to stop scam artists," FTC Chairman Timothy Muris said in a statement. "We want potential immigrants to know that the federal government is here to protect their rights."
Marcos Daniel Jimenez, U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District Of Florida, said the case "signals that immigration scam artists will be pursued and shut down."
When Romano and Nofal are released from prison, an FTC civil settlement requires them to post a $5 million bond if they market, or assist others in marketing, services relating to government-issued travel or residency documents. In addition, the settlement requires them, when selling any travel or residency status document or program, to disclose clearly that they are not a state or federal government agency.
Under the Immigration Act of 1990, the government makes available 50,000 permanent resident visas. From millions of applicants, the State Dept. randomly selects approximately 90,000 lottery winners who may then apply for visas at the consular offices nearest them.
According to the State Dept., 45 percent of the winners fail to meet the minimum educational, work experience or training requirements; fail to supply the required medical information; or fail to complete the additional required paperwork either completely or on time. For the rest of the fiscal year after the lottery takes place, the qualifying winners are issued DVs on a first-come, first-serve basis until the requisite 50,000 are issued.
The case is part of an ongoing campaign by the FTC to identify and halt fraud targeting Spanish-speaking consumers.