Con artists prey on immigrants fearing a Trump crackdown

NEW YORK (AP) - The call came from what looked like a government number. When an immigrant in New York City answered, the voice on the other end told him he was in the U.S. illegally and would have to pay $1,550 to stay.

It was a scam, carried out by one of a number of con artists who have been exploiting immigrants' heightened fears of deportation by posing as federal agents and demanding money, authorities say.

Such scams have been around for a long time, but there has been a flurry of reported cases since Donald Trump was elected president on promises to get tough on immigrants in the country without permission.

Police in Lynn, Massachusetts, warned immigrants to be on guard last month after a family reported getting a call from a person who claimed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents would raid their home if they didn't wire money.

In Illinois, authorities are looking into reports from about 10 Chicago-area residents with ties to Ecuador who said a woman posing as a lawyer reached out through text messages and Facebook, falsely warned people they had a pending immigration case and demanded money for visa and tax help.

And in Greenville, South Carolina, prosecutors charged a man last week stealing more than $70,000 from a group of immigrants by pretending to be a federal agent.

The defendant, Michael Ruiz, 53, had been released from prison in New Jersey in September after serving a seven-year sentence for scamming immigrants by posing as an immigration officer and telling them he could help them get documents or bring relatives to the U.S. A lawyer for Ruiz didn't return a call and email seeking comment.

With anxieties running high over Trump's accelerated efforts to round up and deport immigrants, "scammers can thrive more than ever," said New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, a Democrat from a Queens district with a large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

The targets of such rip-offs are often reluctant to go to the police for fear of exposing their immigration status. That has made it difficult to investigate such schemes or determine how common they are.

"It's very hard to persuade people, especially now, to come forward and file a complaint," said Raluca Oncioiu, director of immigration legal services for Catholic Charities.

The New York attorney general's office, Catholic Charities and ICE have urged immigrants to contact them about such shakedowns. And the attorney general issued an alert last week warning people not to fall for such scams.

Real ICE agents, it said, "will never ask you for money or threaten detainment or deportation if you do not pay them."

The cases reported in New York include the immigrant who got the phone call demanding $1,550 and a person in suburban Orange County who received a text from "ICE" telling him he needed to pay $479 if he wanted to stay in the U.S.

Perhaps the most brazen example in New York City was recorded this month, when a woman called Van Bramer's office to report that four men wearing ICE jackets approached her husband on a Queens street and told him they would take him into custody unless he gave them all his money. He gave them $250.

The couple have since resisted efforts to coax them into helping police find the men.

"I think there's a great deal of fear and also a bit of embarrassment about what happened," the councilman said. "They called because they wanted to let people know about it so it might not happen to others."


Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report from Chicago.