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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Visa Agency Leaves Trail of Tears

In the popular Russian film "Brat 2," one of the heros is issued a U.S. visa under the pretense of attending a computer conference in Chicago. The film features a comical episode in which the shaved-headed gangster struggles to explain the theme of the conference to customs officials.

Ira is no gangster, but the 24-year-old mother from a small town doesn't exactly fit the description of a computer specialist either. In fact, she has never worked with a computer before.

But as far as she knew, she was guaranteed a place in a Russian delegation flying to San Francisco for a big computer conference on April 11. That is what she says she was told at the Floyd Center, an office at 13/6 Novinskiy Bulvar claiming to be an immigration agency with connections to the U.S. and Canadian departments of immigration.

Ira never made it to California. Instead, she soon realized that she had become a victim of one of the latest rackets promising U.S. visas.

Whether the Floyd Center worker identifying himself to Ira as Mark Grinberg got the conference idea from "Brat 2" may never be known. He and a fellow consultant, who called himself Arnold, disappeared around March 27 with the cash she and at least 17 other individuals handed over with the hope of making it to the United States.

Ira had turned to the Floyd Center for visa assistance after the U.S. Embassy rejected her application for a second time in February. But U.S. consular officers said the very fact that Grinberg had promised Ira a U.S. visa should have made her suspicious.

Jim Warlick, head of the consular section at the U.S. Embassy, said no agency can guarantee visas to the United States. "There is something wrong with any ad that promises visas," he said.

Sergei Pantyukhin, head detective for economic crimes for Moscow's central region, said the Floyd Center got away clean with at least $20,000.

But its earnings may have been much higher. Pantyukhin said he suspects only a small number of the people hurt by the Floyd Center have lodged complaints with the police. "Many of them are from the Moscow region and Russian regions, so they may not even know yet," he said.

The 18 that have come forward, he said, were devastated, many breaking into tears.

Igor, a 27-year-old father from Tver, was numb as he spoke about the incident. Struggling to support his family on his plumber's salary, Igor said he took on a second job some time ago that increased his monthly income to "slightly more than $100."

When Igor heard from a friend about the Floyd Center guaranteeing receipt of U.S. visas, he made the three-hour trip to Moscow to inquire. Hoping to work for a few months in New York to help his wife and child, he said he rounded up $1,250 from extended family -- "more than a year's salary" -- to pay Grinberg.

According to Ira and other victims, Grinberg said he could get them a visa regardless of whether they had been rejected "two or even six times." He told them there was a computer conference in April in San Francisco and the Foreign Ministry was going to send a group. He said he could get them on the list through a ministry connection.

"He said the U.S. Embassy would never turn down visa applications of individuals put forth by the Foreign Ministry even if they had been rejected earlier because that would hurt political relations," said Natasha, a 31-year-old Muscovite who lost $1,500 in the scam. "It seemed logical."

But Warlick said such a scheme would be impossible. "If a travel agency tells tourists that they can use contacts in the Russian [Foreign Ministry], there is definitely something wrong there," he said. "We don't do business that way. The Foreign Ministry receives visas for officials, not for a family from Tver looking to take a vacation in the U.S."

Like other victims, Ira was handed the Floyd Center pamphlet immediately upon leaving the U.S. Embassy. An older man standing near the exit doors told Ira the Floyd Center could help those who were rejected get a visa.

Warlick said the embassy tries to do what it can to monitor such things.

"I have gone out there myself and collected the pamphlets people are handing out," he said, referring to the handful of individuals, often pensioners, that hand out printed information to those seeking U.S. visas. "But most of this stuff is not visa services but travel or flight agencies offering discounts."

The Floyd Center pamphlet only offered help in preparing necessary documents and advice on "any questions connected with legal residence in these countries." It also offered legal help to foreigners in the United States and Canada, but never guaranteed visas.

Consular officials said that when they looked into the Floyd Center, they found that there was no travel agency registered at the address indicated on the pamphlet. But they did not contact any law enforcement organizations as they "had nothing to go on, nothing concrete," an official said.

Pantyukhin, who believes the company had been operating since September 2001, based on victims accounts, expressed disappointment that the U.S. Embassy did not do more to stop a company working in front of its building. "They could have contacted the FSB, and maybe the FSB could have done something," Pantyukhin said.

And Pantyukhin doesn't think Grinberg has given up his act for good.

"There are so many people who want to get a U.S. visa. It may be six months or a year, but he will return and start over again somewhere else."