Former HCMC NIV Chief Scheduled to be Released Today

A Retrospective of Halcyon Days & a Precipitous Fall from Grace

Mike Sestak in happier days, i.e., before his fall from grace, i.e., arrest, guilty plea, and prison sentence for selling visas in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).

Sestak pleaded guilty on Nov. 6, 2013, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, to one count each of conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud and to defraud the United States, bribery of a public official, and conspiracy to engage in monetary transactions in property derived from illegal activity. He was sentenced by the Honorable John D. Bates. Following his prison term, Sestak will be placed on three years of supervised releaseFormer U.S. Consulate Official Sentenced to 64 Months in Prison for Receiving Over $3 Million in Bribes in Exchange for Visas, US Department of Justice, 14.8.15

Ready for another dose of intrigue?  How time flies.  It seems like only yesterday that Mike Sestak, former Nonimmigrant Visa (NIV) Chief at the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC),  was being sentenced for conspiracy to commit bribery, visa fraud, etc.  (See above for the “etc.”)  He was arrested in May 2013, sentenced in August 2015, and is scheduled to be released today, US time, from RRM Orlando, a “residential reentry management field office,” i.e., minimum security federal prison, according to the handy Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate Locator. While it’s still prison with all of the inconveniences that go with it, it’s the closest thing the US federal prison system has to a country club setting.

Forgive Him For He Had a Moral Lapse

So the story goes, Mike was persuaded to join an illicit Vietnamese “family business” that spanned two countries by providing visas to people willing and able to fork over four or five figures for one.  As the NIV chief at the time, Mike was the lynchpin of the operation, the hapless, friendless, naive white guy who just happened to have a moral lapse and allowed himself to be used by the locals and their gang for whom he was but a mere commodity, a means to a financial end.  So the story goes.

Like a Canary

After Mike was arrested in May 2013 in Bangkok, he sang like a canary with one glaring exception.  While he quickly confessed to his crimes, he vastly undervalued the properties he had purchased in Thailand with laundered proceeds from the visa scam.  He did say he was sorry and has apparently has been a good boy in the federal pen. 

In a taped interview he said something along the lines of “I did something wrong and I deserve to pay for it, and I know I’m going to go to jail…”  I know this dates me but that reminded me of a line from the old Sammy Davis Jr. song, Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow, otherwise known as Baretta’s Theme from the 1970s cop show of the same name starring bad boy Robert Blake:  Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.  (Don’t do it.) 

The lenient sentence no doubt also had something to do with the fact that Mike is white, male, a former cop, US Marshal, and US Navy reservist.  He was an All-American boy,  albeit with $3.2 million in ill-gotten gains to his credit.  He could have received between 19 and 24 years under federal sentencing guidelines, which meant he would have been in his 60s before he regained his freedom.  A good lawyer, Lady Luck, or was it something else?

Register Number: 64834-112
Age: 46
Race: White
Sex: Male
Located at: Orlando RRM
Release Date: 01/04/2018

Including time served, Mike got a reduction of 9 months off of what many considered to be a very light sentence for someone who made a few mill selling visas.  Maybe crime really does pay.  Maybe you can do the crime and only do some of the time?

A screen capture of Binh and Dao Vo’s wedding video from November 2012. Michael T. Sestak (L), the former head of the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City’s Non-Immigrant Visa Division, apparently served as Vo’s best man at the wedding, which reportedly cost over $300,000. The video was recently removed from YouTube.

Where’s the Re$t of It? 

One contact familiar with the case told me that Mike’s retirement plan was a lot better than his.  Spend a few years in a relatively cozy federal prison working out and reading Tolstoy, all the while thinking about the millions he has stashed away somewhere.  Reliable sources say that the total haul was well over $9.7 million, perhaps as high as $20 million. (If you divide $9.7 million by 489 visas sold, the average amount is $19,836.  Many of the visas were sold in the 50-70k range.  You do the math.  Mike and his one-time partners in crime have.)

Exhibit A:  “I can’t believe Binh has pretty much made over $20m with this business,” she wrote to her sister, identified only as Conspirator A.V. “Slow days… are like 3 clients… and that’s like 160k-180.” (Source:  As Sestak scandal draws to close US government gives up on millions, 2.8.15)

Exhibit B:  According to intercepted chats, (these guys & gals really were amateurs!) Vo warned his wife against opening Western bank accounts in his name and Hong told a sibling that Alice had purchased plane tickets out of Vietnam in case the whole thing “blew up.”  When it finally did, roughly $7.7 million disappeared in three days from a series of Sacombank accounts held in both their names.  (Source:  same as above)

Note:  A shout-out to HCMC-based investigative reporter Calvin Godfrey for his crack reporting of this jaw-dropping case. 

Mike Sestak and a friend at the November 2012 wedding of his partner in white-collar crime. 

Something To Look Forward To?

What about his associate, who was already a millionaire when and he and Mike started selling visas, including those of the tourist and student variety?  Binh Vo (Vo Tang Binh) will be out a year later.  Whoever said life was fair?  Speaking of fairness, his digs are not as cushy as Mike’s, South Dakota vs. Florida.  If you were in a minimum security facility, where would you rather be?  Yeah, I thought so.  

On the other hand, it seems fairly certain that Binh has a fortune to look forward to once he is able to rejoin his Vietnamese wife, who is presumably still in HCMC.  Remember the “roughly $7.7 million” that pulled a Houdini in the course of three days?  Just one more year (!).  Keep in mind that the current savings interest rate on a three-year CD ranges between 7-8% in Viet Nam.

Register Number: 33001-016
Age: 43
Race: Asian
Sex: Male
Located at: Yankton FPC
Release Date: 09/13/2019

Visas Are NOT for Sale

I remember before this story broke hearing on the grapevine in Viet Nam that it was possible to buy a US visa.  My response to people who shared this information was that the US Embassy and Consulate would never sell visas.  It was another one of those wild rumors.  Sadly, it turned out not to be idle gossip. 

Here’ s a quote from an August 2015 blog post about this case.  It’s as true now as it was then. 

While this case one of the most egregious ever in terms of the large amounts of money involved – “one of the largest bribery schemes involving a Foreign Service Officer in the history of the United States” – it’s not the only example of US consular officers selling visas for money or other benefits (e.g., sex). In fact, it’s the lack of accountability that makes it possible for dishonest consular officers to supplement their US State Department income. The only difference is one of scale; most are not as greedy as Sestak and his Vietnamese-American and Vietnamese associates.

There is an urgent need for more accountability related to the work of consular officers.  This is the most compelling reason.

Who Rained on Sestak and Co.’s Parade? 

Hint:  The person who pulled the plug was not an employee of the US government.

There had been official warnings before this case.  It’s obvious that no one, including Anh Le, the consul general at the time, was minding the shop.  Even then Ambassador David Shear got a rhetorical slap on the wrist – in retrospect – from the government he served.  Here’s a relevant excerpt from the aforementioned article: 

In November of 2011, well before the scheme began, the State Department’s Inspector General (OIG) visited the consulate and found that staff weren’t handling tourist visas correctly.

In December of 2012 (actually, February of that year), when the scheme was in full-swing, the OIG released a report (PDF download) that urged Ambassador David Shear to “ensure that the worldwide referral policy for nonimmigrant visas is strictly enforced at Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City.”
The report suggested that the man in charge, Consul General An Le, took a fairly lax approach to official procedures. According to redacted pages obtained by Thanh Nien, Le had his staff solicit cash donations at a July 4th event. A “local employee” then left the equivalent of $10,050 in cash in an unlocked drawer with no clear plan for where it would go.

“There were no controls in place to ensure that donations were not accepted from prohibited or other sources which could result in the appearance of a conflict of interest and receipts were sent to donors only weeks after the event,” the investigators found.

It bears mentioning again that the original tip came not from within the US Consulate or elsewhere in the US government but from a jilted lover, a man in central Viet Nam who had loaned his pregnant fiancée $20,000 to buy a US visa from Sestak and Co.  According to this July 2013 article, his fiancée stopped calling after a month in the US, then had an abortion, married a Vietnamese-American man, and moved to Seattle.  One of the informant’s sources of information about her activities was, surprise!, Facebook.

What did the informant known as “Lan” get for blowing the whistle on what a US prosecutor called “one of the largest bribery schemes involving a Foreign Service Officer in the history of the United States”? Depression, loneliness, death threats, and absolutely nothing from the government he helped at great personal risk.  Compare and contrast that to what Mike Sestak and others involved in the sale of US visas received or will receive, sooner or later.

Question:  Whatever happened to the 489 Vietnamese who bought visas?  How many are still in the US?  How many were apprehended and deported?

Stay tuned.  In the immortal words of one of my favorite folk philosophers, Yogi Berra, It ain’t over till it’s over!


Related Reading

Catching up with the Vos (3.6.13, Thanh Nien News)

Corruption Sans Borders: U.S. Visas for Sale in Ho Chi Minh City (6.6.12, An International Educator in Viet Nam)

US Consulate Officers Gone Wild (4.9.13, Vice)

US visa regulation flaws allow for embassy corruption (20.8.15, Al Jazeera)

Sestak sentenced, justice served? (26.8.15, Thanh Nien News)


This is for the wonks among you, a 39-page application for a search warrant (PDF).  The property to be search was a white Apple IPhone.  The iPhone is currently located at the Diplomatic Security Service Denver Resident Office, at 8101 East Prentice Avenue, Suite 550, Greenwood Village, Colorado, 80111, Evidence Storage Area, Shelf D.  It belonged to Ms. Truc Huynh, one of the co-conspirators who is a Vietnamese national and a cousin of Binh Tang Vo,  (She’s out of prison already, in case you were wondering.)

Gaming the US Student Visa System: Easy as 1-2-3

fraudDo you want to emigrate to the US without the muss and fuss of a multi-year immigrant petition that may or may not be approved?  Psst!  Here’s a low-cost solution.  Apply to an undergraduate or graduate program, depending upon your educational background, at a reputable college or university where there are not many Vietnamese students, if any at all.  Your chances are better that the application will look legitimate. 

Make up a plausible story as to why you chose that off-the-beaten path institution (kudos to you for being so adventurous!), get the student visa, and pack your bags!  (If you’re denied the first time, pony up another fee and come up with a better story.  Maybe the second time will be the charm.  Or the third time.  There is always a bit of luck involved.)

Next, student visa in hand, fly directly to the city in which one of your relatives lives, as you planned from the very beginning.  Then contact your institution and apologize for the change of plans (“So sorry!  Family reasons!” you know the drill), and enroll at a local institution.  It doesn’t matter what you study as long as you’re legally in the US.  Plus, you can rest easy knowing that the original admitting institution is legally obligated to transfer your SEVIS record if you submit the request within a specified period of time.  (You know what is, right?)  Bingo, you’re in!  You’re golden!  Out with the old, in with the new!  Congratulations!  You did it!

Now you can plan your next move.  Marriage to a US citizen?  Maybe you or your rels already have something arranged and someone in mind.  An immigration attorney will help you with that.  Work visa?  That may take a little longer, especially in the current political climate, but it’s possible.   An immigration attorney an help you with that, too.

Shift to a more serious tone…

Here’s one particularly egregious example of what is essentially visa fraud, whereby a student uses an existing loophole in US immigration law to presumably to lay the groundwork for immigration.   

cheating_bartA young woman says she wants to pursue an MBA in the US.  She gains admission, finally gets her student visa, arrives in the US, and makes a beeline for an area with a high concentration of Vietnamese-Americans, including, surprise!, some of her relatives.  Following my instructions above, she immediately requests that her SEVIS record be transferred to Community College A even though she has a BA, which was required to enter the MBA program. 

No, wait.  Maybe it’s not a CC, after all.  The plot thickens.  She’s actually planning to take ESL classes at a local university, even though she met the English requirement of the aforementioned MBA program.  (Is your head spinning yet?)  At any rate, it’s all for show because it’s clear she’s killing time so that a green card can be arranged.  

The admitting institution, which is investing considerable resources to recruit international, including Vietnamese, students, loses a student, which amounts to a waste of staff time and loss of valuable tuition revenue, among other intangible yet equally important losses.

The bottom line is that the US government has to close this loophole, or at least not make this process so easy for young people who are clearly not bona fide students without a plan to return home, two pillars of the holy trinity of the student visa process. 

Advisers, be they from EducationUSA, the private sector, or admitting institutions, cannot read minds and look into potential students’ hearts.  The system can, however, be reformed so that students are held accountable for their decisions.  Is anyone listening?


“As Sestak scandal draws to close, US government gives up on millions”

A screen capture of Binh and Dao Vo's wedding video from November 2012. Michael T. Sestak (L), the former head of the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City's Non-Immigrant Visa Division apparently served as Vo's best man at the wedding.
A screen capture of Binh and Dao Vo’s wedding video from November 2012. Michael T. Sestak (L), the former head of the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City’s Non-Immigrant Visa Division apparently served as Vo’s best man at the wedding.

Living up to one word in the subtitle of this venerable blog, here’s some more intrigue for you.  Below are some of the “money paragraphs” from this update.  My guess is the fat lady hasn’t sung yet on this bizarre case.  Follow this link to read the entire article.  It’s not show me the money, it’s where is the money?  As this case illustrates, corruption is not unique to emerging economies.

Michael Sestak and his date at the wedding of Tăng Bình & Anh Đào.
A screen capture of Michael Sestak and his date at wedding of Tăng Bình & Anh Đào.

Minor correction:  While most of the 489 Vietnamese nationals who participated in this $cheme went on tourist visas, some bought student visas.  Good luck finding them in a country as large and populous as the US, which also happens to have a Vietnamese-American community of over 1.5 million.  It’s no surprise then that many of them are in Orange County and San Jose, among other areas.

While this case one of the most egregious ever in terms of the large amounts of money involved – “one of the largest bribery schemes involving a Foreign Service Officer in the history of the United States” – it’s not the only example of US consular officers selling visas for money or other benefits (e.g., sex).  In fact, it’s the lack of accountability that makes it possible for dishonest consular officers to supplement their US State Department income.  The only difference is one of scale; most are not as greedy as Sestak and his Vietnamese-American and Vietnamese associates.


Where’s the Re$t of the Loot?

Though the Feds have painted Vo as the mastermind — the man who divvied up and laundered the proceeds — he’ll probably get out of jail well before his 50th birthday. Vo’s younger sister, Hong Chau Vo (an American citizen) and cousin, Truc Thanh Huynh (a citizen of Vietnam) are already out of jail and under 30. If Vo upholds his plea agreement, the US Government will drop all charges against his wife, Nguyen Thuy Dao Anh, (AKA Alice Nguyen), a Vietnamese national who was never arrested.
Sestak may be well into his 60s when he finally gets out of jail.

Prosecutors only put the gang on the hook for a $9.7 million — a “conservative estimate” they came up with by multiplying $20,000 by 489.
And they couldn’t even find all of that.
“The government has been able to locate only approximately $3.1 million of proceeds at financial institutions in the United States. The government also traced approximately $3.2 million in proceeds that [Vo] transferred from Vietnam to Thailand for Sestak who then invested in real estate. Millions of dollars in proceeds remain overseas and outside the reach of the United States.”
To prove they weren’t just being excessive, the government pointed to a statement written by Hong Vo the middle of the illicit ten-month visa auction.
“I can’t believe Binh has pretty much made over $20m with this business,” she wrote to her sister, identified only as Conspirator A.V. “Slow days… are like 3 clients… and that’s like 160k-180.”

As part of his plea agreement, Vo will have only have to cough up $2 million by the end of next year — meaning the government will only have recovered roughly $8.3 million. If Vo makes good on that payment, the government will drop all charges pending against Alice–the only person indicted in the case who managed to avoid arrest and prosecution.
In some ways, the couple anticipated this scenario.
According to intercepted chats, Vo warned his wife against opening Western bank accounts in his name and Hong told a sibling that Alice had purchased plane tickets out of Vietnam in case the whole thing “blew up.”
When it finally did, roughly $7.7 million disappeared in three days from a series of Sacombank accounts held in both their names.
At the same time, the government maintains that the couple used illicit funds to travel to Israel, South Korea and Hong Kong where they blew hundreds of thousands of dollars on jewelry. They bought condos in Saigon Pearl Apartments in Binh Thanh District and the Xi Riverview Palace in District 2. At one point, they custom-built an aquarium so large they had to bring in engineers to make sure it wouldn’t buckle the floor.
During this spree, Vo wheeled and dealed on a $38,000 rose gold cell phone.
While such spending may seem reckless, it made it nearly impossible for investigators to track the money.

We’ll Help You.  Sorry, We Changed Our Minds.  Good Luck!

The State Department was quick to crow over Vo’s sentencing, but it remains deeply disingenuous about how this case came about and what it means.
“This case demonstrates Diplomatic Security’s unwavering commitment to investigating visa fraud and ensuring that those who commit this crime are brought to justice,” crowed Bill Miller, the head of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) in a press release generated to mark Vo’s sentencing.
The problem there is that the whole case didn’t come about through careful oversight; it came about because a sad sack from Central Vietnam loaned his pregnant wife $20,000 to buy a US visa from Sestak and the Vos.
Instead of coming home with their baby boy, she disappeared, married another man and blabbed about it on Facebook. The sad sack wrote rambling letters to the President and the State Department’s OIG trying to get his wife and money back.

A Diplomatic Security spokesperson declined to comment on any relationship with their sources, but a DS agent named Tai Pham confirmed that they’d used him to build the case and speculated that the informant had put himself in danger by failing to keep quiet about the way they treated him.
He may well be right.
“I’ve run out of money,” the informant wrote last year in one of his final emails to Thanh Nien. “I cannot hide forever.”

Bonus:  Follow this link to watch some clips from the November 2012 wedding of Tăng Bình & Anh Đào, estimated to cost over $300,000, before the shit hit the fan.

FundsV: The Future of Financial Verification for Overseas Study

fvlogo2Documents that have been in the hands of students are generally not considered official.  World Education Services (WES), a US-based credentials evaluation service

Since US consular officers don’t have the time or resources to ensure that each and every bank statement presented by US-bound students is checked for authenticity, the best option seems to be an online funds verification system like FundsV (Funds Verification for International Students), created by Cheryl Darrup Boychuck, Chief Architect, FundsV.  Here’s a brief description of how it works, excerpted from the FundsV website:

Students build funding profile at FundsV:  Via the authorized host’s unique FundsV URL, students register at FundsV. The nominal registration fee of US$50 entitles them to access their FundsV profile for a 24-month subscription period. They may scan bank statements or other proof of income as instructed by their host authority, and upload them to their FundsV profile. The host may require specific documents, such as Certification of Finances, Affadavit of Support, or Official Scholarship Awards.

Next, students authorize bank correspondence:  The core component of FundsV allows students (or their sponsors) to grant permission for their bank(s) to transmit account balance data via FundsV’s robust aggregation network. First, confirm that your bank is part of the FundsV network. Upon selection of that bank, the account holder grants permission for us to acknowledge the current balance. Account balances are not automatically refreshed each day; only the user may grant permission to refresh the account balance.

All personal identification related to each bank account is automatically purged from the FundsV system, immediately after the secure aggregation network acknowledges the balance of the authorized account. FundsV retains the minimum amount of data required to verify funds: Bank account name, bank account holder, last four digits of the account number, type of account, and the account balance on the most recent day the user authorized access.

Finally, the host reviews students’ FundsV profiles.  After students submit their completed FundsV profile to their authorized host, the host may view those students’ data. The data is accessible only to the host who originally referred the student to FundsV.  The host retains full responsibility in deciding how to utilize the robust set of data provided by FundsV.

Finally, the host corresponds directly with students about the status of satisfying their requirements for funds verification. The host may require further proof of funding from the student (i.e., award letters, affidavits of support or other documents) via the student’s secure Upload function at FundsV.

As this slide, taken from a FundsV training to authenticate financial documents, indicates, online verification of account balances falls on the secure end of the spectrum of “document verification vulnerabilities.”  (The idea for a  Vulnerability Scale came from Educational Credential Evaluators, or ECE.)

Document Verification Vulnerabilities

Once implemented and widely used, it will address the challenge of proving ability to pay, thus strengthening students’ applications.  (This is second criterion of the US student visa process and the key to obtaining a visa to study in any country.)  It is the most reliable and secure way to verify ability to pay, including financial capability over an extended period of time.  For these reasons, FundsV is a triple win – for students, foreign governments adjudicating visa applications and host institutions that need students who are truly able to afford what they have to offer.


Financial Document Fraud & Visa Applications

fakeTrust, but verify. (Russian proverb:  doveryai, no proveryai; Доверяй, но проверяй)

Documents that have been in the hands of students are generally not considered official.  World Education Services (WES), a US-based credentials evaluation service

Yes, dear reader, this practice, which is not unique to Vietnam, continues unabated.  Why?  Because it works in the vast majority of cases.  There are several ways to demonstrate ability to pay, including the use of legitimate bank statements and proof of other assets, information about parents’ employment and other sources of income (e.g., property rental), and, last but not least, the use of fake bank statements.

Why is this type of fraud successful?  1)  Most US higher education colleagues are not trained to detect fraudulent statements (the same applies to cooked high school transcripts) and 2) In the short span of a visa interview consular officers don’t have time to check every bank statement, even they though have been trained to detect fakes.   In the FAQ section of the US Consulate General-HCMC website there is this Q & A:

5. Will a visa agency help my chances of getting a visa?

No. Do not believe anyone who tells you they can help you get a visa. Do not pay money for fake documents. Consular officers are trained to recognize fake documents and lies.

While this is true, the point is most bank statements are not checked because of time constraints.  Fraud uncovered by spot checks is the tip of the iceberg.

Aside from beating already very favorable odds, the creation of fake bank statements and other supporting documents is also profitable for the individuals and agents who provide this “service.”

How the Game is Played

These examples and images are supplied by Ken McCague,  Assistant Director of International Admissions, Old Dominion University in Virginia, and are courtesy of Cheryl Darrup Boychuck, Chief Architect, FundsV (Funds Verfication for International Education).

Fake 1a: India always seems to be a good case study.  For these in particular, seeing a stamp with the apparent branch code gave me pause, though, we ended up with 6 of these statements in a row!  They had at least the courtesy to change the amounts.  This past summer, at the Education USA conference, I spoke with some of the folks from the advising centers in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and showed them similar examples, and they were unanimous: fake, fake and fake!  It was interesting to hear that they estimate that roughly 40-50% of students are actually receiving educational loans to fund their studies.  We almost never see a loan guarantee submitted with an application.

fake2 india
Fake 2a: Another set… very common.  They seem especially insincere when there are 15-20 exactly the same, on my desk!  We’ve even checked, and sometime (though sometimes not) the bank branch physically exists.  Honestly, in isolation, we might even approve some of these statements (as I’m certainly not the end all for verification), but the fact we see dozens identical statements (all from the same University in Hyderabad as well) is what raises red flags.  Even when asking for a passbook statement, I’ll see the same exact template, just different name and figures a just a little off.  It is fascinating, though the time spent – geesh.

fake3 india

Fake 3a: Here, didn’t even bother to change the account balance.  And these were from a “reputable’ agent”.  The account number will change by one or two characters with each successive student.

It’s time to move away from paper, which is so yesterday, and shift to accurate and trustworthy online verification.  Stay tuned for a post about FundsV, a promising high-tech means of addressing this widespread problem of fraudulent bank statements in Vietnam and around the world.



Student Visa Counseling Services

Courtesy of US Embassy-Hanoi
Courtesy of US Embassy-Hanoi

There’s a new consulting kid on the block. The announcement below, which recently appeared in my inbox, is from a US-based company (I’ll call it “Student Visa Company”) that is looking for education agents in Vietnam and elsewhere to refer students to their visa counseling service.

Visa Problems?
A Former Vice-Consul is Here to Help

“Student Visa Company” was founded by a former US visa official to help legitimate students to:

Understand the US student visa process
Understand how to properly use a US student visa
Understand if they qualify for a US student visa
Present their best case to the consular officer and maximize their chance of visa success

Were looking for agents to join our associate network.  The benefits to agents are:

A higher probability of student visa issuance
Additional revenue paid to you as commission
When you refer students to our service, the student gets a discount also

Here are the three services that “Student Visa Company” offers:

  • Visa Appeal: $1,495.00
  • Visa Application Review: $495.00
  • Visa Practice Interview: $995.00

This disclaimer appears in every section:

Note: We are not a part of the US government and are providing a consulting service to help prepare legitimate students for their visa interview. We do not guarantee visa issuance results for people who use our service, nor do we engage in assisting any person to obtain a visa fraudulently. Any information provided to “Student Visa Company” can and may be referred to the anti-fraud unit of the US Embassy without notice to any applicant if we think you’re fraudulent, a threat to US public security, or attempting to enter the US illegally. We want to help legitimate students with the visa process, and do not tolerate fraud or visa abuse in any form. We fully cooperate with requests for applicant information from the US Department of State in regards to fraud, visa abuse and other areas of visa ineligibility.

While I like to see the introduction of new products and services, or the improvement of existing ones, I wonder about the wisdom of this business model, especially in Vietnam, including its price point and the use of online (i.e., Skype) vs. in-person mock interviews.

I also disagree with this statement on the company’s website:

 “Student Visa Company”was created by a former US diplomat who recognized that there is not enough information out there to help qualified students navigate the student visa process.

The poor information available to students is due to a knowledge vacuum created by the US State Department’s desire to not provide so much information that it can be abused by those who don’t qualify for visas.  This is, in fact, a good reason to be less than candid when your job is to keep troubled people out of the US.

In fact, there is plenty of information available from official sources.  The problem is that most students and parents are taking advice and receiving guidance from agents who aren’t familiar with the process and are therefore not in a position to properly prepare students for the visa interview.  The really “bad apples” facilitate visa fraud.

Counseling vs. Scripting

While most education agents don’t do a very good job at it, they do offer this service to their clients. In most cases, their approach mirrors that of the Vietnamese education system.  Give students a long list of questions and answers and tell them to go home and memorize them.  Then have them regurgitate everything in mock interviews.  This means that students go to their interview scripted and are often unable participate in a spontaneous dialogue with the consular officer – to their detriment.  Many agents also supply fraudulent documents, for an additional fee, of course, including transcripts, bank statements and other supporting documents.

The best type of visa counseling is exactly what EducationUSA and the US State Department recommend:  Keep it simple, focus on the basics, don’t use fraudulent documents and provide honest answers to the questions asked by the consular officer.  All of this information is available on the websites of the US Embassy in Hanoi and the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  In addition, students can consult EducationUSA advisers free of charge for basic information.  (When I was country director of the Institute of International Education-Vietnam, which administered EduucationUSA centers at the time, the issuance rate was very high for the students we counseled because of the accuracy of the information and the quality of the advising.)

 It’s Not Rocket Science!

keepcalmitsnotrocketscienceHere are some excerpts from an essay I wrote in 2013 entitled The US Student Visa: It’s Not Rocket Science! (The Vietnamese version is Xin visa du học mỹ: Dễ hay Khó?, Applying for a US Student Visa: Easy or Difficult?)

Contrary to what many students and parents believe, based on rumors and a sea of misinformation, the student visa process is not rocket science. You simply need to prove to the consular officer that you meet these three criteria:

  •    You are a bona fide student (i.e., you’re not trying to use a nonimmigrant visa to emigrate)
  •    You have the ability to pay
  •    You plan to return to your home country

All of the questions that the man or woman on the other side of that thick glass window asks revolve around these points. Consular officers make their decisions – to issue, reconsider pending additional documentation or deny – based on the answers to their questions, their training and their intuition. This means telling the truth, using authentic documents, and explaining your plans in a logical and coherent manner.

Do consular officers make mistakes? Sometimes; they are human, after all. But they generally do their very best to make an important decision – for you and others – in a very short period of time. It’s the stated goal of the US government to welcome as many international students as possible to the nation’s colleges and universities.

So, as you prepare for that all-important visa interview, a short chat that will determine whether or not you study in the US, focus on the basics and keep it simple. Review the criteria, think about how to tell your unique story in a way that makes sense and don’t “memorize your lines.” (Consular officers can’t stand hearing that you want to study in the US “because it has the best higher education system in the world, etc.”) Tell them why YOU chose to study in the US, what YOUR plans are and how YOU will benefit from this life-changing experience.


The Student (F-1) Visa As a One-Way Ticket (To Emigration)

SEVISLet’s face it – some international students are using the F-1 as a relatively easy way to emigrate.  This is one of the reasons why the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is classified as a high fraud post, in addition to issues with the Fiancé(e) (K-1) visa.  In other words, said students most definitely DO NOT meet the first criterion of the visa interview process, which is that they are bona fide students.

Here’s how it works.  Don’t worry, dear reader; once again, I’m not divulging any state secrets here.  As with the quickie F-1 transfer, described in a previous post, the cat’s been out of the bag for a long time on this scam, too.  The difference is that this is beyond gaming the system; it’s visa fraud, pure and simple.

  1. Apply to City Community College because you’ve heard “on the street” or from your friendly agent that it’s pretty easy to get a get a visa to attend that school.
  2. Put your time in for the obligatory quarter or semester.
  3. Make like a magician, fly the coop and disappear, i.e., blend into the population.  The US is a large country in terms of both geography and population, plus there are many areas with high concentrations of Vietnamese-Americans.  That means there are lots of opportunities to work illegally, under the radar, as it were, in a relative’s business, for example.

City Community College, which in good faith admitted these students, is victimized in at least two ways:  1)  it loses students, in some cases, a lot of students; and 2) it runs the risk of coming under official scrutiny as a host institution from which international students are violating their immigration status.

What to do?  In Vietnam – Find out which agents are aiding and abetting the commission of visa fraud, and expose them.  In the US – Locate the violators, deport them back to Vietnam and place their names on an eternal blacklist.  Easier said than done, I realize, in a country of 319 million scattered throughout 9.857 million km² (3.806 million sq miles).  With each deportation and the media coverage it would receive in the sending country, however, this type of fraud would probably wither on the vine faster than you can say Jack Robinson.