Selling hope to the unwitting

He once ran an immigration ‘lottery.’ Now he’s back with a green-card program. We don’t have those, either.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The federal government is about to announce new legislation aimed at cracking down—yet again—on fraudulent, fly-by-night immigration consultants. The details are still secret, but in a recent speech to a gathering of lawyers, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Ottawa is serious about cleaning up the racket once and for all, and assured his audience that tougher rules are imminent.
In the meantime, people all over the world will keep sending cash to Ehab Lotfi—hoping to “win” their way into Canada.

As Maclean’s readers may remember, Lotfi was the proud founder of the “Canadian Immigration Lottery,” a slick website that, minus the fine print, made it seem as though Canada actually operates an immigration lottery. We don’t, of course. What Lotfi’s Montreal company was really doing was charging wannabe newcomers $115 a pop for the chance to win an all-expenses paid visa application. Thousands signed up. Hundreds “won.” Profits were made.

At the time, Lotfi insisted that his site was an innocent “marketing tool,” and not a scam to trick the naive and the desperate into thinking they could really win a spot in Canada. But when industry regulators launched an investigation, Lotfi opted for a name change. The Canadian Immigration Lottery became CIFA (Canadian Immigration Financial Assistance).

Today, the controversial website is called something else:

The problem? Canada doesn’t give out green cards. America does. But that hasn’t stopped Lotfi and his associates from reeling in the contestants. “At Canada Green Card, we believe that dreams do come true,” the website says. “Never stop dreaming.”

The concept is exactly the same as the original lottery. Applicants pay $115 to Lotfi’s firm, Canadian Immigration House (CIH), to be entered into a random daily draw. Winners receive a professionally crafted visa application, a service that typically costs around $2,000. Losers receive nothing—except the fuzzy feeling of knowing that their entry fees helped cover the winners’ prizes.

Back in 2006, Lotfi admitted the obvious: that he was also pocketing a cut. (“I’m running a business,” he said. “It’s not a one-way business.”) But now that his creation is called the Canada Green Card program, he insists he is losing money—and quite happily. “I am helping these people, and I don’t care what you think about it, what other people think about it, what you write, what you don’t write,” he said. “My clients love me and my clients believe in me.”

The Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants (CSIC) does not believe him. The organization, which regulates the profession across the country, revoked his membership in January. “Many individuals are seeking anything they can to try to establish a foothold in Canada,” says Nigel Thomson, the CSIC’s chair. “You can say that people are gullible and they should know better, but when you’re desperate you search out whatever means you can.”

Lotfi has hired a lawyer and is promising to take the CSIC to court, arguing that the organization doesn’t have the legal authority to blacklist him. He also denies any suggestion that someone on the other side of the world might stumble across the new website and assume that it’s a raffle for genuine green cards. “If people are applying for immigration, they are educated, and when they read the website exactly they will understand there is no green card,” he said. “I think it’s well-explained.”

Lotfi is so confident in the credibility of his “charity” work that he agreed to pose for a picture—until the Maclean’s photographer actually showed up at his office. Lotfi phoned the police instead.