This guest article was authored by Siavash Shekarian, CEO, Shekarian Law Professional Corporation.
Each year, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) designates March as Fraud Prevention Month to share information with newcomers on how they can protect themselves.
With over 1.8 million permanent residence, temporary residence, visitor, and citizenship applicants currently waiting for decisions made by IRCC, Canada appears to be one of the most popular destinations for prospective immigrants in the world.
Such buoyant demand for immigration to Canada has made the Canadian immigration system a tempting target for all kinds of fraud. From forged documents, to fabricated refugee stories, marriages of convenience, fake job offers, phishing calls and emails, and paper start-ups. Fraud has been and will continue to be a critical issue for our immigration system. This is a multifaceted problem which is pervasive and uniquely challenging to overcome. Often, the fraudulent actions of immigration practitioners contribute to the problem. There are steps prospective immigrants can take to protect themselves from these immigration practitioners whose actions are fraudulent.
Prospective Immigrants Beware
Prospective immigrants’ lack of knowledge of Canadian law, language barrier, cultural discrepancies, and emotionally charged mindset about immigration, combined with the complexity of the Canadian immigration legal regime are all factors that substantially contribute to their susceptibility to fraud. Therefore, they often fall victim to ghost consultants and/or incompetent authorized representatives who make promises they will not or never intend to fulfill. To mitigate these risks, prospective immigrants should consider following these steps:
Conduct due diligence before hiring a professional
Canadian immigration laws are complicated and challenging even for trained professionals. Obtaining basic knowledge about different programs from reliable and official sources prior to any communication with professionals will shield prospective immigrants against basic forms of fraud. Fraudsters often take advantage of prospective immigrants’ lack of rudimentary knowledge about immigration programs and their eligibility requirements. Each and every prospective immigrant should spend sufficient time to learn the basics about different immigration programs before consulting a professional. The official website of IRCC is the most reliable source to obtain the basics. This is meant to improve the quality of questions the prospective immigrant will later have for a professional. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. A little bit of knowledge can go a long way to ensuring you are not duped.
Know where and how you find credible professionals
Anyone with money can place eye-catching ads on TV networks, billboards, periodicals, etc. Not everyone, however, can become a member of a provincial Canadian law society, a certified specialist, or a member of reputable associations like Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association (CILA). Prospective immigrants are encouraged to find credible immigration professionals through reliable sources. The Law Society of Ontario’s referral service, for example is a good source. The Canadian Bar Association’s Find a Lawyer tool is another good source. It is often suggested that those who wish to immigrate to Canada can find immigration law experts through their own networks of family, friends, or colleagues but this approach can also be risky.
If reliance is to be reasonably placed on a referral, one needs to be sure about the expertise and honesty of the referring person. For example, reliance on a referral from a friend or family member who had a successful immigration outcome is not as reliable as a referral from an immigration lawyer who not only knows the law but can also understand the needs of the client and accordingly refer them to another lawyer that specializes in the area of the prospective client’s needs.
Also, one should pay close attention to conflict of interests when it comes to referrals. Lawyers are not allowed to pay referral fees to non-lawyers. If and when lawyers do pay referral fees to other lawyers, Provincial Law Societies impose strict transparency measures to ensure that the interests of clients are duly protected. On the other hand, such rules and measures affecting referral fees do not apply to members of the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants (CICC), formerly Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC); therefore, CICC members can enter into agency and referral contracts with anyone including their past or current clients. There have been instances where prospective immigrants are told they can recover the professional fees they paid if they make a referral of a new client to the consultant. Accordingly, it is essential that prospective immigrants be aware of potential conflicts of interest when they are being referred and ensure that the referrals made are in their best interest, and not for personal gains of the referring person.
Know your lawyer or consultant
Regardless of how a professional legal advisor is identified by prospective immigrants, conducting sufficient due diligence before proceeding is highly recommended. Attempt to at least verify the qualification of the professional in question through official sources. Pursuant to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, only lawyers, Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultants (RCICs) and licensed paralegals in Ontario (currently Ontario is the only province in Canada that regulates paralegals) can offer paid professional services for immigration matters.
To verify the credentials of a lawyer, all prospective immigrants can refer to the lawyer’s respective law society website (see here for Law Society of Ontario), and enter the lawyer’s details to retrieve their information. Once their information comes up, prospective immigrants should:
With respect to hiring an immigration consultant; prospective immigrants should refer to the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants (CICC) here and enter the respective consultant’s details to retrieve information on the consultant’s good standing. Once the information comes up, they should consider the following:
Understanding the differences between Lawyers and Consultants
Becoming a lawyer in Canada is more arduous than becoming an RCIC. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree with competitive grades, high LSAT score, successful completion of a three -year JD program, passing two seven-hour bar exams, articling for 10 months, and taking an official oath to champion the rule of law, among other things, are all the necessary steps that almost every Canadian lawyer is required to take in order to earn their title. Lawyers are regulated by law societies that have a long history of regulation. Regulated consultants, at least since November of 2021 and the inception of CICC, will have to have a bachelor’s degree with a B average, complete a 12-month program, and pass an exam to be authorized to provide Canadian immigration services. Having said that, the vast majority of consultants were grand-parented and the requirements for all of these consultants were far less rigorous. Beware of claims by some consultants (particularly in their ethnic languages) that they are lawyers in Canada as this is patently false and misleading.
It is commendable that the regulatory framework has improved through initiatives such as establishing CICC in November 2021. It is important to note that two previous regulators fell short of upholding standards, and hence, it remains to be seen whether new measures are sufficient to protect the public from serious and in many cases irreparable harm.
Consultants cannot represent clients before the Federal or Provincial Courts, and advocacy on behalf of clients before the courts is restricted to lawyers only. This is a significant distinction. A promise to clients that refusals will be challenged in court by a consultant should be a red flag that the consultant is not honestly representing the services they can legally provide and may be a tactic to induce the immigrant to sign an engagement with the consultant.
Dig Deeper for Expertise, Honesty and Commitment
When an individual is licensed to practice as a lawyer or consultant, this license does not necessarily represent their expertise, honesty, and commitment.
False and misleading claims and advertisements are prevalent and often used to entice clients to hire a professional. For-sale awards, distinctions, honors, user reviews, and even published books and articles are unfortunate contemporary realities (see this Toronto Star article for some examples) that mislead many into retaining incompetent professionals. Therefore, prospective immigrants should thoroughly investigate the important qualities of the immigration professional they wish to hire by interviewing them and asking them hard questions.
It often happens that prospective immigrants sign retainers with professionals (lawyers and consultants alike) without even meeting them. This happens for a variety of reasons. For example, the professional’s busy schedule does not allow them to meet clients’ pre-agreement, or the professional does not speak in the client’s first language and therefore interacts only with a middle person (or agent), or the case is so simple that no meeting is required. Do not accept these types of excuses. It is fundamentally necessary that prospective immigrants meet with the potential representative. This will provide the immigrant with an opportunity to ask tough questions, and to make an assessment of the professional’s character. Some questions to consider are:
Remain vigilant at all times
True, honest and competent professionals attempt to keep clients informed about their matters. They engage their client in all decisions and meaningfully engaged in pursuing their own case. In contrast, fraudsters tend to keep the client in the dark. A common trick is misleading the client into believing they are qualified for a specific program and submitting fake documents on their behalf; they have the client sign blank forms or sign all the forms electronically instead of the client. This is particularly worrisome because the consequences under the legislation of a finding of misrepresentation on an applicant’s file are harsh and irreversible in many cases (i.e., 5 year ban to enter Canada, permanent record of fraud, revocation of status, charged with an offence, and/or removal from Canada).
Moreover, one should bear in mind that the risk of misrepresentation persists forever as the permanent residency status as well as Canadian citizenship are always susceptible to revocation on the basis of false representation, fraud, and knowingly concealing material circumstances. The Federal Court seldom sides with applicants when it comes to providing relief for misrepresentation where the immigration professional hired by the applicant contributed to the misrepresentation. The Federal Court often concludes the applicant’s choice of representation is not a basis for setting the decision aside. As a result, clients must always remain vigilant and carefully consider every action their representative is taking on their behalf specially in first-time professional relationships.
Prospective immigrants are faced with the possibility of exposure to fraud and should consider using the outlined resources and practices to protect themselves. Gathering information from official sources, conducting research prior to hiring a professional, asking informed questions, and practicing vigilance are all ways a prospective immigrant may mitigate the risk of fraud as they navigate the immigration system.