A brash new scam on social media hijacked the identity of Canada’s immigration minister to defraud desperate refugees of thousands of dollars.
The fake Facebook profile of Ahmed Hussen spelled his last name with one “s” but used the same photos the minister has on his official Facebook page. The account’s information was written in Arabic and English.
CBC News was sent a link to the account by Dana Adil, an Iraqi Kurd who is a refugee in Turkey.
A month ago, the 35-year-old started posting his family’s story on Twitter and directly contacting reporters and refugee advocates in hopes of getting help with resettlement.
CBC news spoke to Adil with the help of an interpreter over Facebook Messenger video.
Adil said he fled Iraq in January 2016 with his wife, Ghareeba, and their four children after extremists attacked his village near Kirkuk.
“The day before I escaped, 150 ISIS members attacked the village where I was living.” Adil said in a cellphone video chat.
“I had to escape because I have two handicapped kids.”
Adil said his eldest son, Dastan,12, and youngest daughter Staesh, 2, were both born blind. He said he and Ghareeba don’t know the cause of their children’s blindness and cannot afford medical care.
Two weeks ago, he said, someone claiming to be the immigration minister sent him a Facebook message in the middle of the night.
“It was 2:00 am. I woke up and saw the message, and I became very, very happy about it,” said Adil.
Adil said the person sending the message refused to speak to him over the phone but communicated with him via text in English. Adil doesn’t know English so he had to send each text message to his sister in Iraq to translate the conversation.
In the texts, the fake minister offered to help Adil get permanent residency in Canada — for a price.
“Do you have the necessary requirements? It will cost you 3550$ for your entire family including tickets,” reads one of the texts.
When Adil responded by saying that that he didn’t have the money, the fraudster replied: “I can’t help you without money because immigration costs money … Canada has rules.”
It’s not known when the fake profile was posted on Facebook or how long it was up. After CBC News messaged the person behind the fake profile, the account was deleted. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) would not confirm it’s investigating the fake profile, saying only that it “cannot comment on the specifics of an investigation.”
Canadian immigration officials say this is the first time they’ve seen scam artists impersonate a federal cabinet minister. In the past, scammers pretended to be immigration consultants affiliated with the federal government and tried to lure refugees into paying for false guarantees of immigration.
Last August, following an increase in such scams operating overseas, IRCC sent a web notice to its embassies in Turkey and Lebanon to warn potential victims about similar schemes making the rounds on Facebook and WhatsApp.
The real Ahmed Hussen said he’s troubled by the idea of his identity being used by scam artists.
“I must condemn in the strongest terms the people who would target these vulnerable individuals,” said the minister.
Hussen said that Canada has tools in place to combat fraud and that serious cases will be passed on to the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency for investigation.
Michael Casasola, a senior resettlement officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said most refugees are vulnerable because they don’t understand the immigration process.
The UNCHR is trying to educate refugees through counselling and signage at its refugee offices.
Casasola said that when you walk into any of the UNHCR’s overseas offices, you see signs and posters explaining there is no fee for resettlement.
Neither the UNCHR nor the Canadian government gather data on how many refugees fall prey to these schemes. Both say they will work with law enforcement agencies to stop the perpetrators. Casasola said that because these scams play out online, it’s difficult to make arrests because officials typically don’t know where the criminals are based.
“The person who may be committing the scam may not even be in the country where the refugee is located in. And so again, it’s (a question of) who’s got responsibility for looking into it,” he said.
In the end, Adil didn’t fall for the scam — because he couldn’t afford to pay up. But the family’s future remains in limbo.
Their UN refugee subsidy pays for a cramped apartment in Ankara, Turkey. The children can attend school, but the Turkish government rarely grants refugees citizenship. More than 3.5 million refugees are in Turkey now and most of them live in cities, where they compete for scarce menial jobs. Adil said he can’t find work.
He said that, for as long as he can remember, he’s lived under a cloud of violence and uncertainty. He seeks a different life for his children — one which lets them live up to their potential.
“I’m 35, I’ve never known a safe life — only conflict, war and struggle. I want to go somewhere to be safe and build a future for my family.”
After speaking to CBC News, Adil asked if telling his story would improve his family’s chances of getting to Canada. The odds are stacked against him. To get to Canada, Adil has to find private sponsors willing to financially support him, or be referred by the UNHCR or another refugee agency to the Canadian government. The United Nations tends to refer only the most vulnerable cases.
There are more than 25 million refugees in the world.
IRCC projects that Canada will accept approximately 30,000 government or privately sponsored refugees this year.