Would-be immigrant to Canada learns the hard way after online consultant denies refund
Internet immigration services show Canadian regulators unable to protect consumers
For Rene Todd, it began as a simple request for a refund.
Shortly after signing up for an online Canadian immigration service in August, the South African woman changed her mind and decided she wanted her money back.
But a string of frustrating emails and a few months later, Todd's journey has turned into a rabbit hole — an odyssey into the world of online sales, fake testimonials, toothless regulators and international operators preying on the desperation of people dreaming of a life in Canada. Her experience illustrates the need for legislation and funding to boost investigations and enforcement around online immigration services.
Todd doesn't just want her money back anymore. She also wants accountability.
"I cannot stand unfairness," she said.
"But it was actually also almost a fascination with getting to the truth of exactly what is going on here. So it probably did get into something a little bit bigger than a refund."
'A huge red flag'
According to its website, Professional Immigration Consultants of Canada, or PROICC, "focuses on helping clients from all over the globe start their process toward immigrating to Canada in the easiest and quickest way."
The company offers a "basic" service for "visa assessment" and a "gold" package for "eligible individuals" to shepherd their applications with the help of immigration professionals.
Todd, who lives with her husband and three children in Cape Town, first came across PROICC after taking an online test for Canadian eligibility that popped up as an ad on one of her favourite news sites.
Not only was she eligible, but a PROICC representative contacted her within days. After a couple more calls, she said, the representative accused her of wasting his time.
"Under normal circumstances, this is where I would have ended the call," Todd said.
"Perhaps because I did not wish to look not serious in such a serious matter and because he was offering a 'special today' at $279 US as opposed to the usual charge of $479 US, I continued with the transaction. With hindsight, this was a huge red flag."
Complaints to Better Business Bureau
Todd began researching the company and came across a series of complaints to the Better Business Bureau. Her husband also had concerns about her giving out her credit card information over the phone, and so she cancelled her card and called to ask for her money back.
And that's when Todd started exchanging emails with Amelia Adams, who claimed to represent PROICC's "legal division."
Adams insisted in an email that the terms of the "special offer" meant there could be no refund.
Todd said no one told her that when she paid over the phone.
Adams said it was on PROICC's website under "terms and conditions."
Todd, a trained but non-practising lawyer, noticed that Adams's email signature said "Vancouver, Canada," and so she sent her a copy of a British Columbia law requiring that refund policies be explained to distance sales customers and asked "under what law do you get to opt out of statutes on refunds?"
Adams wrote back: "Because we are an international company."
At that point, Todd reached out to CBC News.
Vancouver address on website, but no actual listing
A Google search says PROICC is located at 1021 West Hastings St., an office building in Vancouver's city centre. But there's no listing for the company at that address, and a receptionist at a shared office space said she had no record of PROICC ever being there.
There is also no Amelia Adams listed in the Law Society of British Columbia's directory of lawyers.
On PROICC's website, the "About Us" section features testimonials from three supposedly happy customers: Celina Lindberg of Denmark, Andres Bartoludo of Argentina and Thorsten Stormer of Germany.
"I have my Permanent Resident card and now I live in the Canada with my kids, finally giving them a better future," Lindberg is quoted as saying.
Bartoludo agreed: "I moved to Canada to be with my partner. PROICC is the only reason I completed everything successfully."
But both Lindberg and Bartoludo — until the CBC began asking questions — were included on U.S. immigration websites owned by the same parent company as PROICC: "I have my Green card and now I live in the U.S. with my kids, finally giving them a better future," Lindberg said on a U.S. site.
And Bartoludo said: "I moved to the U.S. to be with my partner ...."
On further inspection, Stormer's photograph also turns up elsewhere on the internet: as a stock image people can download if they need a "portrait of a young smiling man."
When Todd initially began to worry about PROICC, she said she looked at those pictures.
"So that kind of gave me a bit of comfort that actually they are legitimate," she said.
"But now ... not even that is real."
Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre investigates complaints
Until this week, when CBC News began asking questions, the owner of the U.S. sites, PROICC and another Canadian online immigration consultancy — Canadaims immigration Services — was listed as Indigo Ltd., an Israeli company located in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
The owner of PROICC has now changed to Canada Immigration Ltd., though the telephone number remains the same.
The terms and conditions attached to both the PROICC and Canadaims websites claim the company's liability is governed by the "Exclusive Courts of Spain."
In one detail that also changed after CBC contacted PROICC, prior to this week customers were warned that any information and documents they sent in were being uploaded to another website and its servers: itscanadatime.com.
That associated entity, itscanadatime.com, was the subject of a Radio-Canada investigation into a series of Israeli-based immigration websites that have generated hundreds of complaints to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
In the days after CBC emailed two queries to PROICC, the terms and conditions changed. Customers are now warned that their documents are being uploaded to proicc.com.
Jeff Thomson, a senior RCMP analyst with the fraud centre, said it has received three reports about PROICC in the past two years and another related to the company's phone number.
The most recent complaint, in July, was filed online, and Thomson shared it with CBC News.
"Our home was destroyed in our country and we lost everything and we wanted a better way of life for us," the complaint reads.
The complainant said they paid $39 for an assessment last January and were told by PROICC that they were excellent candidates for the Express Entry system to Canada. All it would cost was $990 for each of three family members.
"We proceeded and charged the $2,970 on our credit card," the complaint reads.
After months of calling, the complainant said a company representative told them they were accepted for Express Entry and that the next step in the process was the company would help them to look for jobs. But that would cost another $4,500.
The worried complainant did some more research.
"I found that the Express Entry is not a simple process and that we didn't meet all the criteria to even be good candidates for this route," the complaint reads. "We want our full $2970 from PROICC. That's all we want so that we can try to pick up the pieces and make something of the rest of our lives."
Thomson said the complaints — like so many involving immigration — are heartbreaking.
"We know that there's questionable activity going on," he said.
"They're using our reputation to try and solicit people and collect the fee to help them immigrate."
Enforcement power needed
Michael Huynh, director of professional conduct for the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC), said his organization is aware of PROICC, but there's not much it can do but say "buyer beware."
"There's a lot of companies like this that are on our radar," he said. "It's unfortunate that there's very little effort at this point done to control this proliferation. And there certainly needs to be a greater investment of resources and effort."
In Canada, only members of the ICCRC, lawyers registered with one of 13 provincial or territorial law societies or notaries registered in Quebec can legally offer immigration advice or services for a fee.
Huynh's organization is waiting for Parliament to proclaim legislation to give it statutory power to act as a professional college that can regulate the industry as a whole.
He said the ICCRC needs the power of enforcement to build a "body of immigration professionals who can start to instil appropriate values and fair practices across the entire immigration industry and stem this proliferation of these quasi-scams — if not outright scams."
In a statement, Citizenship and Immigration Canada said the 2019 federal budget included $51.9 million to "increase investigations and enforcement, expand public awareness and strengthen the oversight of consultants."
Huynh said PROICC may provide some level of service, but no one needs to pay to assess their eligibility to work, study, visit, travel through or live permanently in Canada. The government provides a free tool on its website.
On its website — again in the terms and conditions that customers like Todd say they were not advised of on the phone — PROICC warns that "preliminary eligibility assessments do not constitute personal immigration advice and do not guarantee the issuance of immigration visas or other documents to the user."
And it also points to Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to say that anyone wanting immigration advice or representation will have to go through "an authorized representative."
Thomson, the RCMP anti-fraud analyst, said he wonders whether the time has come to start "regulating the promotion of access to government services where people are making money off people trying to access these services that are otherwise free to access."
As Todd's experience indicates, when a customer wants a refund or to challenge the level of service provided by an organization such as PROICC, they find themselves wondering exactly who lies behind the website, its shadowy associated entities and its phoney testimonials.
"At the end of the day, they're not accountable to any organization, so the consumer is taking a huge risk," Huynh said.
'You are absolutely mistaken'
Todd had her last email conversation with Amelia Adams in August.
This week, CBC sent PROICC a long list of questions about its legal status, ownership and relationship with itscanadatime.com. The next day, Todd said Adams called her "literally ... 15 times."
She said Adams now claims that her money was refunded two months ago after Todd threatened to contact CBC, the Law Society of B.C., Huynh's organization and others.
Todd said she has no record of the refund, and she had already cancelled her card. She has asked her bank to investigate. But she's skeptical that her money was refunded, given that the last she heard from Adams in an email before going public was: "You are absolutely mistaken in what you are stating, therefore there is no reason for me to keep giving you the same answer over and over again."
Todd said she'll consider Adams's explanation for her sudden reversal, but she'll need written proof before she believes anything.
- An earlier version of this story contained a photo of a person unconnected with the story's subject matter. The photo has been removed.Oct 26, 2020 9:35 AM PT