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Irish ‘ghost student’ visa scam raises alarm in Dublin language schools

Non-European Economic Area nationals using ‘risky’ fake documents are undermining businesses, English language schools say

Felipe shows The Irish Times a letter saying he is going to a Dublin language school – only he has never attended a class, and he paid a scammer €1,150 for the false documentation before his arrival in Ireland.

“It’s very risky,” Felipe says. Despite being granted an Irish residence permit, he says he “would never go through that again”.

Felipe is one of many people from Brazil and other non-European Economic Area countries who have availed of a scam that English language schools say is undermining their business. One school says it had to lay off staff because of a drop-off in enrolments linked to the scam, slashing its fee by 25 per cent in a bid to attract more students.

Sudesh Jeewon, chief executive officer of Dublin College of Advanced Studies (DCAS), says the school became aware of the scam about eight months ago after being contacted by an immigration officer.


“Somebody was trying to come in with a fake letter,” Jeewon says. “It is something serious as these people are not coming to school. They’re getting forged letters.” Then, using this fake documentation, “they’re going to the Immigration [Service Delivery] and getting their visas”.

The Irish Times spoke to a number of people who availed of the scam who admitted to obtaining forged enrolment letters, medical insurance and attendance certificates when applying for student visas. They paid scammers between €600-€1,800 and negotiated the details via WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

“Students don’t think about the legal implications. If you were a student having to pay about €1,500 to a course, and then someone offered forged documents for €600 not having to attend classes, they’ll go with the fake letters,” says Jeewon.

According to Jeewon, 10 fake letters have come to DCAS’s attention within the last six months. “I do think the fake letters are having a domino effect on schools. If this is not stopped, schools definitely will be closed,” he says.

“We may have to close another three classes due to the decrease in enrolments. We’re losing out big time. We’ve 250 students registered with us today, but our capacity is 460.”

It’s not one group or one school. It’s everybody. It’s a sector-wide issue

—  David Russell, Progressive College Network chairman

One of the letters that came to Jeewon’s attention was used earlier this year by a Brazilian woman, it had simple mistakes and some key information missing, he says. “We don’t know how many people have used forged letters because we are only aware of those checked by immigration. It could be 20, 30 or it could be 100. This one, for example, is a four-year-old template no longer in use,” he explains.

Jeewon says the majority of their students are non-EEA nationals who are attracted to Ireland by low language course fees and the permission to work up to 20 hours a week under Stamp 2 visas. “If we lose 30 per cent of our business, it’s going to be a disaster,” he says.

David Russell, chairman of industry umbrella group Progressive College Network and director NED College, says he has been raising the issue with Immigration [Service Delivery (ISD) in the Department of Justice for the past two years. “It’s not one group or one school. It’s everybody. It’s a sector-wide issue,” Russell says.

The network estimates that the English language education (ELE) sector is worth almost €1.2 billion to the Irish economy annually. The industry saw an increase of 295 per cent in student numbers between 2021-2022, but at this point, according to Mr Russell, “things are tough”.

“Ireland is kind of starting to move into a recession, we all know that. But if we look at our student numbers now, our student numbers a year ago [have been on a] downward trajectory,” Russell says.

He says this time last year NED College had 950 students enrolled. Today, they have 829. “It could be a hangover from the pandemic,” he says, after the visa renewal system became 100 per cent online, with in-person applications limited to first entries into the State.

English language schools are asked to forward a weekly spreadsheet with current information on their students to the ISD to help verify students, including current and new enrolments, attendance rates and data on expelled students. Russell says the ISD often contacts them to confirm student enrolments, but wonders: “How many of them are we not catching?”

Felipe says he hired an “agency” to provide him with the false documents. He passed through immigration at Dublin Airport without a problem but said complications with the documents emerged following his first appointment with the ISD.

“When I got my appointment with them, they found some inconsistent information in the letter. I got desperate. I realised that I could have been deported from the moment I arrived here. Everything in the letter was wrong,” he says.

“It was a cheaper option, but I never thought it was something illegal, but under the table. I even called [the school], and they said I wasn’t registered with the school. I was really afraid. If [ISD] called them to confirm this, they wouldn’t confirm. And [the scammers] told me that the school was aware of this.”

The Brazilian man says, after rescheduling his appointment with the ISD, he saw no option but to edit the errors pointed out by the immigration officer himself. He used a free online service to edit PDFs to change misleading information and used this second version in the new application when his Stamp 2 student visa was approved. “I even got my PPS number,” he says. While he used forged documents, in the eyes of the State “I’m completely legal here”.

Ana, another recent arrival in Dublin from Brazil, says the English schools’ high fees were the main reason she sought forged documentation. A new 25-week English course could cost up to €3,900, while the renewal fee could be up to €2,600. She paid a scammer €750, saying: “It’s a huge difference when you don’t have the money. It could be your only option.”

One of the scammers goes by the moniker Snowden. “I found it odd when I realised that my certificate had typing mistakes, and then saw the trouble I was in. I saw [the scammer’s] email address… but I had already paid them, and my visa was refused,” Ana says.

Her visa was denied because the ISD could not confirm her enrolment with the college. “It works for many people because the immigration checks are random. They don’t check everybody… a friend of mine had his visa application denied, but another four were accepted. You need to be lucky,” Ana says.

Dublin-based school owners say they are creating new protocols with their letters to make cheating more difficult.

Tiago Da Silva Mascarenhas, chief executive of SEDA College, says the school changed its letter layout, adding an extra step earlier this year to prevent fraud. The latest template has an encrypted QR code that, when scanned, redirects to the school’s website page with student details.

“The details on the letter must match the QR code, which is only generated inside the college,” he explains. Mascarenhas says there was a spike in the number of people using forged documentation for visa applications in the last quarter of 2023 but has “no idea” about the numbers. “The only way to know is when [ISD] contact us,” he says.

Russell says the fake letter scam “could be stopped very simply. It just requires the GNIB [Garda National Immigration Bureau] to have a little joined-up thinking and co-operate with schools.” He recalls the ELE industry had a crises “in 2012-2013, because of certain schools and individuals who were doing the wrong thing and selling attendance, basically facilitating visa fraud”.

The Department of Justice subsequently announced a series of measures, including reducing the visa length from 12 to eight months.

“What is happening at the moment is worrying… Basically, every few days, we get an email from immigration asking us to verify the student. Invariably, in these cases, it’s a faker. Only this week, I got three fake letters,” he says.

Russell says “the schools are doing everything to make sure this doesn’t happen... But I do think that the authorities need to step up and improve their processes to wipe out this.”

A few weeks after her visa application was denied, Ana made a new application attempt within the ISD online system; this time, she used a fake letter from another Dublin school. She dealt with another scammer who claimed “to have deals” with the school and she paid €1,800 for the forged documentation. Ana was told she would be officially registered with the school.

“He said I would be in the school’s system, like ‘ghost student’,” Ana explains, as not attending classes was part of the deal. Her visa was refused for the second time because her course attendance rate was “below the acceptable standard”, she says. “I ended up losing all my money twice.”

The Irish Times contacted the school which said the letter provided “is missing some key information and does not look valid” and since hearing about the scam, it has “added an extra layer of security and immigration can now verify our letters directly if needed”.

At the moment, it seems like it’s a very loose system that is easily abused

—  Lorcan O’Connor Lloyd, chief executive officer of Marketing English in Ireland

Lorcan O’Connor Lloyd, chief executive officer of Marketing English in Ireland (MEI), another industry representative group, says people availing of the scam are “putting themselves at severe risk of being deported, and that could have a hugely negative impact on them to obtain visa status in other countries”.

“I’m sure there’s also potential for huge, big penalties, financial penalties. Obviously, it’s detrimental to the reputation of international education in Ireland if it’s not rectified,” O’Connor Lloyd says.

He says member schools of the MEI notified the organisation of the fraud last November. “We wrote to the Department of Justice in January, kind of saying this is a major issue. A student can almost pick the institution that they want to get a [fake] letter from. There’s a few different operations providing these letters.”

In a statement, the Department of Justice said it “is aware of the attempted use of fraudulent documents by persons to obtain immigration permission and access to the State. However, currently we do not maintain statistics [on the matter]”.

“ISD registration staff maintain regular contact with administration staff from education providers for verification purposes as appropriate, where documents are suspect, education providers are contacted directly to verify them,” the statement said.

“All cases of suspected fraud are referred to the GNIB. Lists of newly registered students and attendance rates are actively used in assessing applications, where provided. In conjunction with referring to student enrolment information provided, ISD registration staff maintain regular contact with administration staff from education providers for verification purposes as appropriate.

“In addition to reporting all cases of suspected fraud to GNIB, examples of any such disputed documents are shared among registration staff for awareness and training purposes.”

O’Connor Lyold says the MEI is discussing the introduction of a standardised system across all schools in its network, where they would have a similar letter with a QR code integrated along with extra layers of security. MEI represents 65 school members across Ireland, with 104,264 students enrolled in 2022, 29 per cent from outside the EU/EEA region.

“There has to be some sort of advancement in the system of tracking student letters,” he says. “At the moment, it seems like it’s a very loose system that is easily abused.”

* Felipe and Ana are pseudonyms used to protect the identities of interviewees