owner, managers of sedalia firm indicted for defrauding customers by selling immigration forms available for free
from the government
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - Beth Phillips, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced today that the owner and two managers of a Sedalia, Mo., business have been indicted by a federal grand jury for their roles in a conspiracy to defraud consumers who purchased immigration forms that were available at no charge from the federal government.
Thomas Joseph Strawbridge, 49, Thomas Barret Laurence, also known as Thomas Barnes, Thomas Laurente and Thomas Johnson, 30, and Elizabeth Lindsey Meredith, 24, all formerly of Sedalia, were charged in a 14-count indictment returned under seal by a federal grand jury in Jefferson City, Mo., on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012. That indictment was unsealed and made public today upon Strawbridge’s arrest and initial court appearance.
According to the federal indictment, Strawbridge founded and owned Immigration Forms and Publications (IFP) in Sedalia. Laurence managed the day-to-day operations of IFP and Meredith assisted Laurence.
The indictment alleges that, from March 2009 to April 2011, Strawbridge, Laurence and Meredith participated in a conspiracy to defraud consumers who were seeking assistance with immigration-related matters by inducing them to purchase government immigration forms that were available from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at no charge. They allegedly gave consumers the false impression that the company was affiliated with the federal government and that sales representatives were government agents.
IFP advertised immigration services on the Internet, the indictment says, particularly through search engines such as Google. Web sites directed consumers to call a toll-free number, where they were connected to IFP sales representatives, including Laurence and Meredith. IFP sales representatives allegedly answered calls by saying “agent” followed by their first name. IFP employees, in subsequent conversations with customers, allegedly referred to a sales representative as an “immigration agent.”
Sales representatives spoke with potential customers and attempted to determine which government form best matched each caller’s immigration situation. According to the indictment, these sales representatives had no particular expertise in immigration matters and sometimes sent customers the wrong form for their situation. Other customers allegedly received none of the promised assistance from IFP in completing their immigration forms.
IFP sales representatives, including Laurence and Meredith, allegedly made materially false statements to customers, including claims that IFP handled excess call volume related to immigration matters for USCIS, that fees paid to IFP included government application and processing fees, and that forms purchased through IFP would be processed more quickly than if customers dealt directly with USCIS.
According to the indictment, IFP sales representatives explained that the company would send the forms via FedEx to the customer’s address and help the customer correctly fill out the forms. The customer would pay IFP up front by giving a money order to FedEx upon receipt of the forms. IFP sales representatives allegedly quoted prices for the various immigration forms that were the same or similar to government processing fees for the same forms. For example, the USCIS fee to process an Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card (I-90 form) was $290. IFP charged $290 to send customers an I-90 form, according to the indictment.
Many customers who sent their forms to USCIS were surprised to learn that the fees they already paid IFP did not cover government processing charges. None of the money that customers sent to IFP went toward government processing fees, the indictment says, and IFP sales representatives did not inform consumers that USCIS routinely charged processing fees, which they would be required to pay in addition to IFP charges.
In addition to the conspiracy, Strawbridge, Laurence and Meredith are charged with six counts of mail fraud and seven counts of wire fraud.
The indictment also contains a forfeiture allegation, which would require Strawbridge, Laurence and Meredith to forfeit to the government any property derived from the proceeds of the alleged violations.
Phillips cautioned that the charges contained in this indictment are simply accusations, and not evidence of guilt. Evidence supporting the charges must be presented to a federal trial jury, whose duty is to determine guilt or innocence.This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony P. Gonzalez and Trial Attorneys Alan Phelps and Adrienne Fowler of the U.S. Department of Justice Consumer Protection Branch. It was investigated by the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Missouri Secretary of State Corporate Division, the Missouri Secretary of State Securities Division and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.