Friday, August 24, 2012

Two Plead Guilty in Scheme to Defraud Consumers Seeking Immigration Services

Two Missouri men pleaded guilty for their roles in a scheme to defraud consumers seeking immigration-related services, the Department of Justice announced.

Thomas Joseph Strawbridge, 49, and Thomas Barret Laurence, 30, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud in connection with Immigration Forms and Publications (IFP), a Sedalia, Missouri company that sold immigration forms otherwise available at no charge from the government. According to court documents, IFP sales representatives fraudulently told consumers that the company was affiliated with the government and that fees paid to IFP covered government processing charges. Strawbridge and Laurence each face up to 20 years in prison, three years’ supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000.

“Over a year ago, the Department of Justice announced its commitment to combatting immigration services scams, which often prey upon individuals who are in this country legally and trying to abide by the rules,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West. “Today’s guilty pleas represent an important step in our continued fight to protect vulnerable individuals against fraud.”

“Those who seek to defraud immigrants should heed the message of this case: you cannot take advantage of someone’s unfamiliarity with the immigration process, engage in fraud and expect to get away with it,” said Stuart Delery, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.

According to court documents, Strawbridge founded and owned IFP, while Laurence managed the business, which operated in 2009 and 2010. In pleading guilty, Strawbridge and Laurence admitted that IFP representatives falsely told consumers that the company employed paralegals who would help customers correctly fill out immigration forms, that IFP handled excess call volume for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), that fees paid to IFP included government processing fees, and that forms purchased through IFP would be processed more quickly than if consumers dealt directly with USCIS.

“This company preyed on legal immigrants who were doing their best to follow the law,” said David M. Ketchmark, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. “These defendants operated a busy call center where so-called agents lied to hundreds of customers about the firm’s affiliation with the government. Their victims paid more than $400,000 in total to purchase government forms that anyone can obtain for free.”

U.S. District Judge Nannette K. Laughrey presided over the change of plea hearing.

Elizabeth Lindsey Meredith, 24, was also charged in the scheme.

These cases are being prosecuted by Alan Phelps and Adrienne Fowler, Trial Attorneys for the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch; and Tony Gonzales, Assistant U.S. States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. They were investigated by the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Missouri Secretary of State Corporate Division, the Missouri Secretary of State Securities Division, and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office. The Justice Department has also been working with the Federal Trade Commission on immigration services fraud cases and thanks the FTC for its assistance in this matter.

For information regarding immigration forms and information concerning the immigration process, go to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website:

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