A Charlotte resident pleaded guilty in federal court this week to running an immigration scheme that parlayed hundreds of temporary work visas into profits of $13.2 million.
This fraud is textbook in a lot of ways, says Deputy Special Agent in Charge Ryan Spradlin of Homeland Security Investigations in Atlanta, because "it fell within the technology sector. That seems to be more of a common H-1B visa concern for us."
H-1B visas give foreign experts in certain fields permission to work for a few years in the U.S. The visas are highly sought after and also kind of a pain-in-the-neck for companies to get because they have to promise to employ a specific worker for a specific job at a specific pay for a specific period.
So a Charlotte man named Phani Raju Bhima Raju set up shop as a middleman. He recruited people from his native India – and other countries - to allegedly work for his Pineville tech company called iFuturistics.
In reality, Raju was farming those workers out to companies across the country and making a handy profit of over $13 million.
That was over a period of six years ending last November when Raju got caught. In one episode straight out of a con-man movie, Raju got word that Immigration was coming to check on all the H-1B workers he claimed to have in Pineville, so he filled an empty office with fake employees and new computers to throw inspectors off the scent. A month later, the investigators came back to find the same office dark and deserted.
Spradlin won't say how Raju's fraud was ultimately discovered, but court documents indicate at least one woman complained to authorities after coming to the U.S. for the promise of a $60,000 job, only to be given no work and no reimbursement of her $2,500 security deposit.
"That's another common thing that we see referred to as 'benching' where these people don't actually work and they're paying to take a position that they're not actually being given," says Spradlin.
A 2008 study by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services found 13 percent of H-1B visa petitions were fraudulent. The program has become increasingly controversial as U.S. tech workers allege companies abuse it to bring in foreign employees at lower wages.