Exclusive: Fraudsters damaging people ‘emotionally and financially when they are at their most vulnerable’, watchdog says
Vulnerable migrants are being scammed out of “huge sums of money” by rogue solicitors and immigration advisers giving false promises over visa and asylum applications, a watchdog has warned.
John Tuckett, the Immigration Services Commissioner, told The Independent fraudsters were capitalising on waves of refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine, and that illegal advice on Home Office applications that have no prospect of success was now a “very extensive practice”.
“This does happen, it’s vicious, it’s horrible, and it damages people emotionally and financially when they are at their most vulnerable,” he added.
One victim told openDemocracy she had been conned out of £3,500 by a solicitor who assured her she would be able to convert her temporary visa into the right to remain in the UK because she had a baby son.
Mary* said she believed the man and paid up-front, adding: “My dad had just passed away. And so I used money from him. My mum lent me £2,000, and we had some small savings. So we managed to come up with the £3,500.”
A year later, the Home Office confirmed her application had been denied but the same solicitor tried to convince her to pay another £2,000 for a legal challenge.
“He kept saying that if I didn’t put in an application, that we would be sent home,” Mary said.
Feeling that something was wrong, she sought advice from another solicitor and was told that the application had “no chance”.
Weeks later, the Home Office informed her that the first solicitor had reported her overstaying her visa and ordered her to leave the country.
“I was so scared,” Mary said. “I trusted him because he was a solicitor. We just believed his word. I’m sure this is happening to a lot of people.”
Mr Tuckett said the account tallies with reports received by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC), which regulates immigration advisers.
The watchdog received 131 complaints over potentially illegal advice in 2020-21, but Mr Tuckett believes the figure is the “tip of the iceberg”.
“The scale is very difficult to assess as we have relied on referrals by members of the public who had an experience such as those described coming to us,” he said.
“For many, there is no way of checking the advice they receive to see where it is of any value or use at all.
“Many victims may not speak English and they certainly will not have a detailed understanding of UK immigration law. They are sadly an easily exploitable group of people and there are these criminals who are undoubtedly doing it for profit.”
Many migrants are believed to be too frightened to report their experiences to authorities because of their immigration status.
“I was scared that if I made a report, I would be sent home,” Mary said.
A man who arrived in the UK on a work visa and sought advice on how to remain in the country said he was too scared to report an adviser who scammed him out of £800.
The money was taken for an application for a student visa, which was destined to fail, and Edward* refused to pay a further £2,800 the fraudster demanded.
“I didn’t confront him because I didn’t want him to reveal my identity,” he said. “I was afraid he would reveal me as an overstayer.”
Edward was unable to work and became homeless, having to rely on friends for food and shelter.
A 2012 law removed state-funded legal aid from almost all immigration cases not relating to asylum or detention, meaning that migrants are often lured in by the promise of an easy and low-cost solution.
Rogue solicitors and legal advisers are targeting migrants by joining support groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, offering their services by word of mouth in particular communities and contacting migrants in Home Office accommodation who are waiting for their applications to be processed.
Mr Tuckett fears that opportunities for fraudulent legal advice have also increased for waves of new immigration law under the Nationality and Borders Act, complex refugee resettlement routes and the exodus from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
He said: “Suddenly lots of people are arriving in the country, who may be legal routes but are then seeking advice for families to join.
“Regrettably this is an area where many people jump in and see an opportunity.”
The watchdog can investigate fraudulent advice and either prosecute offenders for immigration offences and fraud, issue police cautions or formal warnings telling them to desist or become regulated.
“Our main aim is to disrupt and stop the illegal activity taking place,” Mr Tuckett said. “We are also issuing advice about the warning signs to look out for.”
The warning signs include demands for cash payments up-front when no service has been provided, a lack of invoices or receipts and meetings in open spaces rather than offices.
The OISC website has a free tool to find legitimate local legal advisers, while the Solicitors Regulation Authority has a similar tool for checking whether solicitors and law firms are regulated.
Zeena Luchowa, who sits on the Law Society’s immigration committee, said a “massive red flag” was any solicitor who does not ask a new client for documents proving their identity or publish hourly rates on their website.
“Advisers have to tell you what the likely costs are going to be at the outset, then update you during the matter and you have to be properly billed for what has been done,” she added.
Ms Luchowa, who is an associate partner at Laura Devine Immigration, warned people to beware of any solicitor guaranteeing success, adding: “No one can ever guarantee that an application can be successful, they can say it has a reasonable chance and you meet the requirements but that decision is for the Home Office.”
The department carries out checks to ensure legal representatives and immigration advisers are appropriately regulated and has guidance on its website.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Office works closely with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner and will report anyone suspected of providing poor or illegal advice.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity