Wayne England, a Tennessee alpaca farmer, was duped into signing an invitation letter used by two Chinese men to apply for U.S. visas. The men entered the U.S. with the visas and then disappeared off the radar screen.
I was interested enough in the original story by Forbes that I decided to interview England to find out more about how he (and the Embassy) were scammed.
The story begins in November 2008, when England received an unsolicited email from Huang Siyuan. The man claimed to be an agent working on behalf of Chunjiang Livestock Co. in Hebei, China. He said he’d seen England’s website and was interested in buying up to 100 alpacas. (England’s alpacas are listed at $1,000 to $32,000 each.) Huang said the company would send three people, including a veterinarian, to Tennessee to learn about the alpacas and discuss the purchase.
Huang and England discussed terms of sale. England agreed to a 10% discount off the list price. He asked for half the payment when the order was placed and the other half before delivering the animals to the quarantine station for export
Huang drafted the attached invitation letter, which England signed.
Huang insisted that England mail him photos of the alpacas and other materials. England spent $225 on UPS.
England subsequently received an email from a consular officer at the Embassy. On March 6, 2009, two applicants (Zhang Junqi and Liu Jianqiang) had applied for visas using England’s invitation letter. The officer asked for verification that England had issued the invitation letter and that it wasn’t “counterfeit” or “altered.”
In fact, the invitation letter had been altered after England signed it. The names of the visa applicants were changed. Concerned, England forwarded the Embassy’s email to Huang, who said these new individuals would be visiting instead. England then replied to the Embassy that the invitation letter was legitimate.
In mid-March, when the visitors still hadn’t arrived, Huang told England they were hospitalized after a car wreck.
At this point, England was suspicious enough to contact the Embassy again, and the Embassy told him that the applicants had in fact been issued visas and traveled to California.
England wrote to Huang: “It pains me deeply to learn that you’re such a fraud. Your two friends ended up in California.” He asked for $1000 compensation for his troubles. Surprisingly, Huang wired England $600. Huang also offered to make England a partner in his visa scams, offering $1000 to $2000 for each additional invitation letter England provided. England turned down that offer.
In the end, England feels that he suffered significant losses from the scam. Besides the $225 UPS bill, he estimates he wasted 150 to 200 hours working on the deal. Most importantly, for the first few months of the year he didn’t try to sell his alpacas by entering them in shows because he thought they would instead be sold to China.
THE WARNING SIGNS
In retrospect, England admits there were a number of warning signs that this was not a legitimate business deal:
- Huang’s inquiry was unsolicited.
- England never communicated with the individuals who supposedly were coming to visit him. He only spoke with Huang, their supposed agent.
- While England was impressed that Huang asked “all the right questions” by email, the fact that they never spoke by phone may be a sign that Huang had something to hide.
- The strongest sign of a scam was when Huang altered the invitees names on the invitation letter after England signed it. (By this point, England was so eager to make a sale that he didn’t answer the Embassy’s inquiry as to whether his letter had been altered.)
The Embassy warns that some requests for invitation letters are legitimate, Â but some are not. “Oftentimes, the PRC national initiating the contact has no relationship to his/her claimed Chinese employer. In fact, it is not unusual for these individuals to be part of elaborate human smuggling syndicates.”
The U.S. Commercial Service recommends that exporters use the following precautions:
- Request a copy of the business license; check validy of address and phone number, license validity date, name of registered representative
- Request a copy of the company’s certificate of import/export authority
- Verify the company’s international trade experience and avoid firms that have less than two years of experience
- Seek multiple references and check them. Request referrals to both suppliers and customers
- Order an International Company Profile report through the U.S. Commercial Service
- Accept only secured forms of payment such as letter of credit or direct telegraphic transfer (T/T or wire transfer)
Due diligence may save a U.S. exporter time, money, and aggravation. It also may help the exporter to avoid inadvertently assisting persons in entering the U.S. illegally.
And it may protect the exporter’s reputation. The next time somebody applies for a visa to visit England’s alpaca farm, the application will probably be strictly scrutinized or denied outright.
(Huang Siyuan did not reply to emails requesting an interview).