Consular offices across India outline a growing trend of sharp practices resorted to by applicants

After sifting through visa applications received by consular offices in India during 2008 and 2009, the United States Consulate in Chennai, where the country-level coordination office for Fraud Prevention Programme is located, found that the volume of fraudulent applications was on the rise. In a cable sent from Chennai (229319: unclassified, dated October 13, 2009), the States of Gujarat, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh were identified as hubs of such fraudulent practices. Hyderabad in particular was seen as a centre of large-scale documentation fraud. This affected visa processing not only at the Hyderabad centre but also in other offices in India, the cable said.

This cable, along with two cables (195313: unclassified, dated March 5, 2009 and 216420: unclassified, dated July 14, 2009) sent from New Delhi and Mumbai respectively, listed different types of fraud, described some key incidents, and named some agencies and people involved. They briefly discussed improved methods of detection and a tightened process of verification adopted by consulates. After dealing with Indian visa applications, U.S. officials in India gained enough expertise to host training sessions in “adjudication techniques and fraud prevention strategies” for officers stationed in other countries.

These cables were accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks.

Consular operations in India are “amongst the busiest in the world” for the U.S. In 2008, about 7,56,000 non-immigrant and 27,000 immigrant visa applications were processed. About 3,083 cases of non-immigrant visa fraud cases were identified. Though this is small compared to the overall number of applications received, the cable noted that the number of fraudulent applications was on the rise. For instance, the number of reported cases of B1 (for business) and B2 (for pleasure) visa frauds “nearly doubled from 1,089 to 2,121” over the first six months of 2009.

Sharp practices were detected across different types of applications. In the case of the business visa, some applicants submitted “fraudulent experience letters and fake document packages, which include passport copies of false relatives, bogus financial documents, and affidavits of support.” There were fake priests from Nepal and Karnataka. “Many student applicants, even legitimate ones,” presented “fraudulent packages of bank statements and land documents in their interviews.”

Other instances

The Kolkata Consulate encountered some blatant cases of fraud in R1 — religious worker — visa applications. A cable (142989: unclassified, dated February 26, 2008) sent from this office, described how two ‘monks' — one of them was trying to use a stolen passport and the other had a forged one — were caught. Also, some Buddhist monks from the ‘Northern District' of West Bengal who applied for the R1 visa “did not belong to the monasteries as they claimed.” The cable noted that at times, sources outside India were also complicit in the fraud.

It was observed that in some instances, cooks and maintenance men tried to pass themselves off as Hindu priests. The Kolkata consular office was wary of one particular Hindu institution. It noted that they specially looked out for applicants with any connection to “the cunning and adaptive Gaudiya Vaisnava Society (GVS), also known as the Sri Ram Temple, in Milwaukee, founded by former R-1 visa holder and current Lexus driving legal permanent resident (LPR) Hari Gopal Das a.k.a Sudarshan Halder,” which ran a temple that looked like a “boarding house.” The Fraud Prevention Unit (FPU) of the Mumbai Consulate identified a trend of “mix-and-match” couples where “multiple spouses pretended to be married to the same spouse” who was a legitimate H1-B (speciality occupation) visa holder in the United States, in order to obtain dependant visas. The cable noted that “these applicants were to pay upon issuance approximately $70,000 to the smuggler that arranged their documentation.” Misrepresentations of marital status such as “falsely claiming to be single by denying the applicant has a spouse and children and misrepresentations of the age of children in order to qualify as part of the family eligible to immigrate” were prevalent among applicants, particularly those from Kerala.

The cable documented that the majority of fake documents fabricating educational and employment qualifications came from Hyderabad. When 150 companies in Hyderabad were investigated, 77 per cent of them “turned out to be fraudulent or highly suspect.” They encountered several fictitious companies in places such as Bangalore and Pune “staffed by Hyderabadis.” The cable said “the Hyderabadis claimed that they had opened shell companies in Bangalore because ‘everyone knows Hyderabad has fraud and Bangalore is reputable'.” Fake certificates issued by shell companies in Pune helped Hyderabadi applicants “to apply in Mumbai's consular district and avoid Chennai.”

Even special initiatives such as the Business Executive Programme (BEP) that was meant to enable “large firms with a high volume of travel to the United States to access a priority visa appointment calendar and allows for expedited processing of applicants on the day of the appointment” were not free of fraudulent practices.

Cable 195313, sent from the New Delhi Embassy, pointed out that a purported vice president of Maxwell Industries admitted during an interview at the Consulate General in Chennai that he had purchased a complete package of fraudulent supporting documents from a vendor in Hyderabad in order to benefit from the BEP programme. What surprised the consular officials was not the presence of fictitious company, but “a genuine letter of support from the regional director of Indo-American Chamber of Commerce (IACC) based in New Delhi.” This letter sought to confirm that “the applicant and his fictitious company were official members of IACC's delegation to attend the Pack Expo in Chicago.” The IACC is a non-governmental, industry-led organisation that looks at ways to promote commercial relations between India and the U.S. Further investigation showed that more companies that were part of the IACC had submitted fraudulent documents.

The U.S. officials noted that “the IACC showed no accountability for its applicants” and that “several IACC applicants, including the CEO for Saravana Bhavan [a south Indian restaurant chain caught in a fraudulent visa application case] confirmed that IACC charged them to obtain an IACC BEP appointment.” The IACC was removed from the BEP programme in January 2009. However, the U.S. Mission in India acknowledged “the otherwise positive work that the IACC does on behalf of U.S.-India commercial relations and will continue to work with IACC on non-visa issues.” FPUs in consular offices use a combination of methods and tools to detect fraud. For instance, the New Delhi office verified applications from Punjab using applicants' voter identity papers. By looking up the website www.ceopunjab.nic.in, it found “who lives in the voter's house, their age and marital status and/or father's name.”

Based on this information, it detected three cases for investigation. Using online phone lists, FPUs located “phone numbers in the area in which the applicant lives and call those neighbors for information about the beneficiaries and sometimes petitioner.”

Professional verification services such as Lexis-Nexis (‘a global company that helps professionals verify identity and prevent fraud') checks were used. In addition, the Consular Consolidated Data Base (CCD) and Arrival and Departure Information System (ADIS) were deployed to check the status of applicants.

The cables noted that all fraud prevention units in India “are [now] better equipped, and most will soon have appropriate offices from which to operate.” They appreciated the cooperation of local authorities. In particular, they favourably mentioned emerging systems such as OLIVE, an online verification system for high priority educational degrees in Andhra Pradesh.

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)