Scamsters Posing as ICE Officials Are Defrauding U.S. Families of Asylum Seekers
With knowledge of personal details, ICE imposters have coaxed thousands of dollars from fearful relatives of detainees.
By Gabriel Thompson
This essay was originally published by the award-wining journalism nonprofit Capital & Main.
On April 5, Mariana was at her usual spot on a Miami sidewalk selling hot dogs and grilled corn when her phone rang.
She did not recognize the 1-800 number, and the caller said he was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official named Marcos Cruz. He knew Mariana’s name, as well as the names of two of her nephews, brothers who had fled Nicaragua. Cruz knew they were being held at the Stewart Detention Center in rural Georgia. He said that a judge had granted her nephews a bond of $3,900. If she paid it, they would be set free the following day.
The call was an answer to her prayers. Mariana had agonized over the fate of her nephews since they had arrived at the U.S. border seeking asylum. They had left Nicaragua fearing persecution for participating in protests and marches against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a fear that escalated after a relative was murdered and the nephews learned their names were on a paramilitary group’s list of targets. Along the way, they were kidnapped by the Gulf Cartel in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, and held for three days until their guide had made payments for their release. They had told Mariana of rough treatment at Stewart, which one media report recently identified as the deadliest immigration jail in the county.
“They have suffered so much. I felt pure happiness when I got the call,” said Mariana, who spoke to Capital & Main on the condition that we not use her real name or those of her asylum-seeking nephews because she feared for the safety of their relatives in Nicaragua.
Cruz asked if her nephews had an attorney. Mariana confirmed that they did and gave him the number she had for the lawyer’s office. Minutes later, she got a call from what appeared to be that number.
The caller identified himself as attorney Joseph Giardina and confirmed the good news about the bond. A few minutes later, Cruz sent Mariana what appeared to be two court documents, each emblazoned with the logo of the Department of Homeland Security, that showed the bond amount and Cruz’s application to suspend the deportation.
Later, the man identifying himself as Giardina called again. He told Mariana that because of the pandemic, ICE was accepting bond payments only through its office in Los Angeles via money transfer services such as Western Union.
Mariana scrambled to come up with the money, and within an hour she had borrowed $4,000 from two friends. Mariana’s husband and daughter sent two payments of $1,950 through Western Union and Ria Money Transfer to an individual named Alejandra Moreno, whom she had been told was an ICE attorney in Los Angeles. Mariana called her sister in Nicaragua and shared the news: her sons were on the cusp of being released. Her sister, who was recovering from a serious COVID infection, also broke down in tears.
At home, Mariana waited for an update. She had been told that her nephews would be on a 6:30 a.m. flight the next day to Miami. As the hours passed, she tried calling Cruz but didn’t hear back. Growing increasingly worried, she contacted an assistant she knew at Giardina and Guevara Law Firm, located in Baton Rouge, and asked why there was a delay in purchasing the plane tickets.
The assistant had no idea what she was talking about. She passed along the purported court documents and explained that she had spoken to Giardina and an ICE official named Cruz. Once Giardina saw the documents he knew who was behind the scam. Several months earlier the same “Marcos Cruz” had successfully targeted the relative of a previous client, a Brazilian asylum seeker held in a detention center in Louisiana. As he explained that Mariana had been defrauded, she broke down again.
“I’m someone who works and struggles without a lot of money. And it’s not so much the money, but that he played with my emotions and had me believe that I was going to see my nephews the next morning,” said Mariana, tearing up again while recounting the experience.
Mariana was only the most recent victim of a wide-ranging scam that has targeted the relatives of detained immigrants across at least five states. Since January, Capital & Main has interviewed more than a dozen family members and detainees targeted by Cruz, collected fraudulent court records, and listened to recordings of WhatsApp messages and phone calls of Cruz and his associate.
What emerges is a portrait of a man who has significant knowledge about how the immigrant bond system operates, has access to sensitive information typically collected by the government, uses increasingly sophisticated methods to defraud desperate family members, and, as the list of his victims grows, has operated with impunity for more than a year.
“They operate with no conscience,” said Giardina, “and are preying on people in incredibly desperate situations who are just trying to help their families. It’s sickening.”
The bond scam is fueled by fear and desperation. Immigrants, many of them seeking asylum in the U.S., are locked away by the tens of thousands each year as their cases proceed. Family and friends of those immigrants, concerned about their mental and physical health, desperately want to see them released and to be reunited. Nonprofit organizations across the country raise money to pay bonds and free immigrants, but there has also emerged a shadier segment of operators.
“We started seeing a lot of bond scamming situations a few months into the pandemic,” said Blake Vera, who worked for more than three years at RAICES, an immigrant rights group based in Texas, before leaving in December to pursue law school. As the organization’s immigrant bond fund director, he estimates that he came across between 10 to 15 scamming incidents, most frequently where individuals found various ways to reach out to the family members of detained immigrants and phish for more information, then request down payments for bonds, sometimes even impersonating a RAICES staffer. Most of them, however, appeared to be short-lived operations.
Homero López is the co-founder of Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy (ISLA) in New Orleans, and represents detained immigrants in Louisiana. He also said that last year there had been a flurry of fraud cases — one of the scammers even called his office — but that they hadn’t been able to generate much public attention to the problem.
“We were thinking it could be somebody within ICE, or somebody not necessarily at ICE but who works at a detention center and has access to detainees’ information,” said Lopez. The suspicion that it could be a particular detention center employee stemmed from the fact that many of the earliest cases centered around detainees in Louisiana, which has become one of the nation’s top states for locking up immigrants.
The number used by Cruz — 1-800-458-8814 — first showed up on a website where people can identify unknown or suspicious phone numbers on January 12, 2021. In June of last year, a citizen journalist in Tijuana posted an interview with a family living in El Chaparral, a sprawling Mexican border camp that has since been dismantled, who said they were contacted by a “Marcos Diaz” and which showed the same sorts of doctored documents used by Cruz. In that case, relatives in the U.S. wired him $3,500, having been told it would allow their Mexican family members to enter the U.S.
In January, Capital & Main posted a notice to the same message board. Since then we have spoken to 12 individuals who have been contacted by Cruz and whose family members are or were detained in five separate ICE detention centers across Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Those contacted said they spoke to a caller who either identified himself as “Marcos Cruz” or whose voice matched a recording of Cruz played back for them.
According to family members, three additional individuals were never held by ICE but remained in the custody of Customs and Border Protection, which raises additional questions as to how Cruz receives his information. Some family members said that Cruz called and provided them with many details, including the birth date of the detainee, their 9-digit “A number” (an identification number given to immigrants that is not publicly available), or knew that a judge had previously denied a bond request. Other times, he had only the name and phone number of the relative.
Mariana was one of three relatives of detainees who spoke to Capital & Main that fell victim to the scam.
Capital & Main reached Cruz over WhatsApp, and he denied that he had anything to do with the scam. “People are telling you lies,” he said. When told that Capital & Main had recordings of his conversations with immigrants in which he pretended to be an ICE agent, he hung up and blocked the number.
There are various theories as to how Cruz is receiving his information. One possibility is that immigrants who have spent months languishing in cells are inadvertently sharing their information with outsiders posing as lawyers or advocates. “Many people are reaching out into the void, calling any number they get while in detention to try to find any kind of assistance,” said Vera, the former RAICES staffer. Another possibility, noted earlier by Lopez, is that guards or even fellow detainees are collecting information at a particular detention center and passing it along.
However, considering the broad scope and longevity of Cruz’s operation, it appears that Cruz may have access to sensitive information within the Department of Homeland Security.
One week before Mariana was contacted by Cruz, a young man from Guatemala was transferred to the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona. The detainee, who asked that his name not be used, said that on the day he arrived, an employee at Eloy came to his cell with a laptop and asked him if he had any family members in the U.S. He gave him the name and number of his cousin in Kentucky, and he watched as the man apparently added the information to his file.
Three days later, his cousin in Kentucky received a call from Cruz, who told him that his cousin had a $3,900 bond. The relative, who initially believed Cruz was an actual ICE officer, searched the 1-800 number and discovered it was a fraud, and recorded the subsequent phone calls with Cruz and a supposed government attorney who was representing his cousin, who identified himself as John Kelly. This man described the bond process at length, sometimes accurately, noting that the bond would be returned if the cousin attended all of his court dates and that if the cousin changed addresses they would need to notify the court. He was told to wire the money to Alejandra Moreno, the same name given to Mariana.
When the relative said he would not pay, Cruz’s friendly demeanor became threatening. “I am going to send all of your information [to the court],” he said. “And that’s going to cause you problems. You are not going to play with us. Con nosotros, no vas a jugar.”
Three attorneys told Capital & Main that they had alerted ICE about various bond scams, including the one directed by Cruz. They said they did not know what the agency had done with the information. The lawyer representing Mariana’s nephews, Joseph Giardina, filed a report in January with ICE after a previous relative of a client was defrauded by Cruz, and was told that Homeland Security Investigations already had an open investigation into bond fraud.
Capital & Main asked an ICE representative if there was an open investigation into Cruz and whether there have been past instances in which Department of Homeland Security employees have been found to be sharing private information about detainees for financial gain. An ICE spokesperson said that the agency does not disclose the status or existence of investigations undertaken by Homeland Security Investigations, whose purview includes financial fraud and scams, and did not respond to the question of whether there have been past instances in which ICE employees were found to have unlawfully shared private detainee information.
Cruz’s operation, though targeting detainees across the country, seems to be anchored in California, as several of the money transfers were traced by two different relatives to the same Walmart, located in South Gate, a city in Los Angeles County, using MoneyGram, Western Union and Ria Money Transfer. Along with Alejandra Moreno, Cruz has passed along numerous names to relatives of fake ICE lawyers or agents to whom they should direct the money transfers, always identifying them as being in various Southern California cities.
Nearly all of the detainees whose relatives have been contacted by Cruz did not have a bond, and several of them have since been deported. Mariana’s nephews were the exception: a real ICE official had granted them each a $10,000 bond, and when Capital & Main spoke with Mariana a week after she had been defrauded, her mood had lifted dramatically. A co-worker of her husband had learned of her dilemma and offered to loan her $20,000. The co-worker had paid the bond the previous day, and that morning her nephews arrived in Miami for a tearful reunion. Mariana was $24,000 in debt and had no idea how she would even begin to repay the money, but for now she was just relieved to be reunited with her nephews.
During an earlier conversation, she had said that the situation facing asylum seekers is already hard enough, as they have fled their home countries in search of safety and freedom only to land behind bars once they arrived in the U.S., and sometimes forced to pay large sums to be released.
“And then to have this damned imbecile who somehow knows all about us and plays with our emotions and robs us of hope,” she said, her sadness turning to anger. “I am speaking up about this now because I don’t want another person to fall into his trap.”