- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Organized crime rings have exploited the U.S. visa application process in Ukraine, obtaining fraudulent credentials and documents from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev that put U.S. national security at risk, the State Department’s chief watchdog warns.

The inspector general reported this month that the fraud rings “operate with impunity” inside the former Soviet republic and “have taken control of” an American program that allows foreigners to win visas via a random lottery.

U.S. Embassy officials in Kiev are making valiant efforts to try to deter fraudulent visas from being issued, but the outpost doesn’t have all the resources it needs and inexplicably downgraded the embassy’s chief of fraud detection to an entry-level position that requires little experience, the report said.

“The program requires urgent attention and corrective action from Washington,” the inspector general declared.

The inspector general’s warning, part of a larger report that gave good performance grades overall to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, cited detailed evidence on how crime rings steal data or pressure Ukrainians to gain access to their personal information to apply for bogus visas and eventually enter the U.S. under false identities.

The magnitude of the challenge facing American officials is evident in the fact that 50 percent to 80 percent of all applicants for the visas in Ukraine have given incorrect addresses for themselves, the report said.

State Department officials don’t have exact numbers on how many people have been affected — and how many have found their way into the U.S. — but believe fraud rings are filing fake visa applications for as much as 80 percent of the population of western Ukraine.

The crime rings have specifically targeted the Diversity Visa program, which allows foreign citizens to enter into a lottery for a chance to apply for a U.S. immigration visa.

“Organized fraud rings masquerading as travel agencies have taken control of the Diversity Visa program in Ukraine. They buy, steal, or obtain from public sources personal information about Ukrainian citizens, especially those living in western Ukraine,” the report said.

The report did not state how many fraudulent visas had been issued but made clear that some bogus recipients have made it all the way to the United States, and then been extorted for thousands of dollars in payments to stay.

“The fraud ring’s involvement continues after the selectee enters the United States,” the report says. “The fraud ring applies for the selectee’s Social Security card and retains both the card and the Social Security number for misuse.”

Several incidents show how Ukrainian criminals have abused the U.S. visa system. In 2011, for example, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that five Ukrainian brothers had been arrested on human trafficking charges. The group demanded $10,000 to $50,000 from Ukrainian citizens to smuggle them into the U.S. Once in the country, prosecutors say, the Ukrainians were enslaved, beaten and sexually assaulted.

In June, two Massachusetts men were arrested and accused of trying to hack into financial accounts at dozens of banks and the U.S. military’s payroll system, The Boston Globe reported. Federal investigators said they were following orders from a criminal in Kiev who was deported earlier from the U.S. after a similar cybercrime spree.

The fraud in the immigration program has become so pervasive that government investigators recommended that embassy staff move away from automated distribution of visa paperwork and consider personally notifying visa recipients to make sure the information goes to the right person and isn’t stolen.

“This process would add work for the consular section but less than is now required to combat fraud,” the report said.

The inspector general also implored the State Department to upgrade requirements for the position of chief of fraud detection, given the security stakes.

“In 2012, the Bureau of Consular Affairs downgraded the fraud prevention manager position to entry-level,” the report says. “The complexity and pervasiveness of fraud in Ukraine and the need to supervise seven LE staff members requires the expertise of an experienced mid-level manager.”

State Department officials did not return calls seeking comment from The Washington Times but told the inspector general that they agreed to look at the recommendations.

Security analysts said the report amounts to a red flag, noting that Ukraine is accessed easily by the Russian mob and other organized crime organizations that could use a rigged visa system to place criminals or terrorists inside the U.S.

“Any such break in the system or breakdown in the system is a security concern,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank the Brookings Institution. “It should never be outsourced to the Ukrainian mafia.”

If a person is selected to apply for a visa, the U.S. Embassy sends a confirmation number. The fraud rings will intercept that number, go to the individual and demand as much as $15,000 to turn over the paperwork. If that person cannot pay, the fraud rings often will insist upon a “sham marriage” so the person with a visa can help get a second paying individual into the U.S.

Failure to pay has led to threats against family members, officials said.

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he was more concerned about the criminal nature of the fraud than terrorism risks.

“There’s nothing in this scheme that would seem, per say, to raise security risks,” he said. “It obviously raises a lot of problems. A lot of people in Ukraine are getting ripped off.”

Ukraine is a former Soviet republic that shares its eastern border with Russia. The nation of 44.5 million people is the largest by square mileage entirely within Europe, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The Diversity Visa is unlike other immigration programs that bring people to the U.S. mostly for work or to be with family, Mr. Alden said.

“The idea is to try to encourage immigration from countries that are underrepresented in the U.S. immigration pool,” he said.

That means that basically anyone with at least a high school education can apply. The program often has drawn fire for being too broad and not serving U.S. interests, and Mr. Alden said that if Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform, the Diversity Visa program likely would be cut.

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