'He was supposed to help us': Chinese immigrants out thousands after immigration agent disappears
Client says she gave Winnipeg agent $10K and received no services
A Winnipeg immigration agent has allegedly skipped town, leaving a group of Chinese immigrants in the lurch and out thousands of dollars.
Jiatoo Immigration Consulting Inc., run by 24-year-old Zhihao Jia, quietly shut the doors at its Pembina Highway office in early March, clearing out furniture in a seemingly overnight move with no notice given to its landlord or clients.
"He was supposed to help us — but he didn't help, but hurt us," said Julie, a client of Jia's, who the CBC has agreed not to identify.
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Julie said she gave Jia $10,000 on March 1, 2019, to help her apply for a post-graduate work permit and eventually help her get permanent residency in Canada.
Instead, less than two weeks later, she was left scrambling to find Jia after he stopped returning her calls or texts.
'No people, no furniture, nothing'
When Julie went to Jia's office on March 11, she knew there was a problem.
"We found his office was totally vacant. Nobody was there. They were all gone. No people, no furniture, nothing," she said.
The CBC has agreed not to name the woman we are calling Julie, as she is afraid that speaking out could impact her future immigration applications.
She is one of at least 13 Chinese immigrants who claim they were affected by Jia's disappearance, according to licensed immigration consultant Yu Xiang, who is working with Julie and a few other clients left in the lurch.
One person gave Jia over $20,000 and only received partial services before the immigration agent packed up and left, Xiang said.
"The severity of harm done to them [varies]," person to person, he said.
Some clients paid and got nothing, he said, while others got partial help and some received full service. But Xiang questions the legitimacy of their applications, because Jia was not licensed to fill them out.
CBC has not been able to speak with Xiang's clients to independently verify this claim.
Julie said she felt she could trust Jia after seeing online advertisements for his company, and a website saying it was nominated for a 2017 "new emerging Chinese company" award at the Manitoba Chinese Business Gala.
When she went to the company, Julie had just graduated college and needed to get a job in order to obtain a work permit and stay in Canada.
She agreed to pay Jiatoo Immigration Consulting $15,000 for help to find a job and eventually receive assistance with her application for permanent residency in Canada, according to the retainer agreement signed by the client and the company.
Julie paid Jia $10,000 up front, and was to pay the remaining $5,000 at a later date.
"We are newcomers. We are not familiar with the immigration service or the working environment here in Canada," she said when asked why people pay for immigration services.
"We need help. We need guidance and instruction. We need to consult people who know how to help us."
Jiatoo owed 2 months' rent
The landlord at 675 Pembina Highway got a call from an employee of Jiatoo Immigration on March 5, saying the office was empty.
"She said the place was cleaned out," said property manager Eileen Gaynor.
CBC has not been able to reach Jia for comment. Texts and phone calls to the cellphone number he provided to clients, and which is listed on Jiatoo's website, went unanswered.
CBC reporters also visited two properties associated with Jia through land titles. Both were abandoned. Stacks of newspapers were piled up outside the front door of one of the properties.
Gaynor said Jia still owed rent for February when he vanished. He had given her a cheque but it bounced. By March, he had closed his bank account so she could no longer collect on his debt.
Jia moved into the strip mall in April 2018, according to Gaynor. Company records show he is the director of Jiatoo Education Service Inc and also the president of Club Royale Immigration Inc.
Winnipeg police investigating
Julie said despite paying Jia, she got nothing in return. At first she wasn't sure what to think, but after telling police what happened, the woman is confident she's been duped.
"It's official now, so we aren't suspicious anymore. We are pretty sure that he's a fraud," she said.
For weeks, the woman kept trying to get ahold of Jia. He eventually phoned her husband, telling the couple to stop looking for him — or else.
"He said he knew us. He has got our information, and he [said] if we called police, it will have a bad influence on our immigration process," Julie said.
After reporting Jia to police, Julie called the Canada Border Services Agency and Winnipeg-based immigration consultant Yu Wang — the licensed immigration consultant Jia worked under as an agent. Company records show that Wang is the director of Internationalized View Investments Consulting Ld.
In Canada, under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, advice or representation for immigration applications can only be provided by either a person licensed through the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC) — the regulatory body for immigration consultants — or a lawyer in good standing (or in Quebec, a member in good standing with the Chambre des notaires du Québec).
Winnipeg police confirmed that they received a report from the client and are investigating. The CBSA said it is not their practice to confirm or deny whether they have launched an investigation.
At this time no charges have been laid.
Not allowed to give immigration advice: ICCRC
Jia was not licensed to do immigration work, but had been hired to recruit clients for Wang.
Jia is not a member of the ICCRC, but was registered as an agent of Wang's.
Agents are not allowed to provide any advice for immigration under the current ICCRC regulations, but those rules are frequently skirted, explained Xiang, who is a licensed consultant under the regulatory council.
Wang told CBC News he had no idea Jia was taking money from clients until a woman called him mid-March to allege the agent stole her money.
"He's supposed to [be] recruiting clients for me," Wang said. "I prepare the application to Citizenship and Immigration Canada."
Wang said Jia informed him earlier this month he was moving to Vancouver, so Wang cancelled his agency agreement with him. The ICCRC confirmed the agreement was cancelled on March 15.
He says he has no idea where any money Jia collected would be and he does not have access to a client list. He said repeated messages to Jia about the money have gone unanswered.
"I didn't see the money at all," he told CBC.
Xiang said the likely reason more people have not reached out to Wang is because they do not understand that he is the consultant Jia worked under.
Julie said at first, she was afraid to speak out, but decided she couldn't stay quiet and allow other people to be victimized.
"We trusted him," she said.
"We want people [to know] what kind of a company Jiatoo is, and we want people to know what kind of person Zhihao Jia is — and to me personally, I want my money back."
Julie said Jia came to Canada as a student in 2012, and took the same path as she did which makes his actions even more egregious.
"He studied here and graduated and [worked] here. So I think he should know what we think. He should know what we feel — what we feel as a newcomer here."
200 cases reported each year: CBSA
The Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council cannot legally prosecute or investigate allegations of fraud. It can discipline a consultant if an agent of a member acts unethically.
On first offence, the council member receives a written warning.
On second offence, the member is fined $100.
The CBC requested an interview with the ICCRC, which could not be accommodated in the time frame requested.
In a prepared statement, the regulatory council said it could not disclose information on any investigations that are currently underway.
But Xiang says he's heard stories like Julie's too many times.
"It has a very huge impact on the reputation of Canada's immigration system," he said.
"And there's lack of trust between these newcomers and the various service providers in Canada."
Almost 180 cases of suspected immigration-consultant offences are brought to the attention of the Canada Border Services Agency each year, according to data provided by the agency.
About 120 of those complaints involve unlicensed consultants.
Xiang says those cases aren't just about money. A late application form or forms with missing errors can mean the applicant is denied a work permit or permanent residency, and the consequences can be deportation.
"We're talking about people's lives here," he said.