Fake robberies allowed fake victims to apply for visas, prosecutors say


At first glance, a series of eight armed robberies at convenience stores and liquor stores in four states this year appeared to be run-of-the-mill crimes.

But FBI agents investigating them noticed patterns that they said could suggest a more complex operation: The robberies, including at least one involving an apparently fake gun, were organized as part of an elaborate visa fraud scheme.

Two suspects in the case, Rambhai Patel and Balwinder Singh, were each charged in federal court on Tuesday with one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud. If convicted, each would face up to five years in prison.

Based on surveillance footage, cell phone records and interviews with a cooperating witness, the FBI concluded that the alleged victims each paid $10,000 to be “robbed” in exchange for immigration “documents” and that the store owners They received between $1,500 and $2,000 for providing locations to commit false crimes. .

A criminal complaint alleges that Mr. Patel's role included arranging the staged robberies by communicating with store owners and alleged victims, with Mr. Singh as the driver.

The case highlights the vulnerabilities of a federal program that places undocumented immigrant victims of certain crimes on a path to citizenship through the granting of visas.

The so-called U visas are granted under a 23-year-old law designed to help law enforcement agencies investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, among other crimes. Congress allows the government to issue only 10,000 such visas a year, and the program's backlog of applications (270,000 in 2021) grew significantly under the Trump administration.

When the Biden administration said two years ago it would speed up the process of issuing temporary work permits to people waiting for U visas, critics warned of the potential for fraud and abuse.

The agency that administers the U visa program, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has said it cannot identify the amount of fraud it contains. But the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general said in a 2022 audit that the program “was not administered effectively and is susceptible to fraud.”

Charges related to the eight armed robberies were filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and the two suspects were arrested Wednesday. Four of the robberies took place in Massachusetts and the others in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Lawyers for the suspects could not be reached for comment. Both suspects are in their 30s and have addresses in New York state, according to court documents.

After the first three robberies occurred, in March in Massachusetts, investigators believed they were connected and involved the same armed person, an FBI agent said in an affidavit this week. As the agency learned of other cases involving the same person, evidence suggested the robberies were not “purely commercial.”

Several victims were in contact with Patel before the robberies, for example, and in one case a robber traveled by plane for a job where the money “likely to be obtained” was less than the cost of the trip, according to the affidavit. . The agency also learned of “the immigration-related activity of several store employees following their alleged victimization.”

After all but one of the eight robberies, law firms representing the alleged victims applied for U visas, the FBI found.

After one of the robberies, police in Worcester, Massachusetts, searched a suspect's vehicle and found a firearm covered in black duct tape. FBI agent Jason Kentros wrote in his affidavit that he did not believe the gun was real.

To help its case, the FBI asked a cooperating witness to introduce Patel to an undercover agent as someone who “might be interested in helping with the scheme.”

In November, Patel told the undercover agent to enter a store to carry out a fake robbery only when it was almost empty.

“How do you get down?” the agent asked during a call that was recorded on WhatsApp, referring to the robbery. “Do I have to jump over the counter, do I have to get the gun, what do you need me to do?”

“Just show the gun, that's all,” Patel said, adding, “Just take it out of the register, the money, and give it to me.”

Christine Hauser contributed reporting.

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