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International Students Beware: Notes about the fake University of Farmington

Updated: Jul 6

One of the biggest shocking news headlines I read yesterday has to be the news from the Detriot Free Press about a fake university in Michigan created by ICE. Yeah, you read that right. (in case, you have not read about it yet). The now-defunct University of Farmington is reported to have targeted hundreds of international students.


There are fake agents with fake admission letters but this takes the cake. The more you read about the history of this whole story, the more it makes you cringe and angry. Never forget that Farmington Hills, Michigan, is a real place located in Oakland County, Michigan, United States; the issue is the fake university - the University of Farmington. It was all a setup, an elaborate scheme for unsuspecting international students.


A black lady with her hair tied into two buns and wearing a black camisole
My Mood -Shocked!

The university was created in 2015 and this enrollment quagmire goes back to 2017 when international students from countries like India received emails;


"It was a pleasure speaking with you," Ali Milani wrote to the student from India. "Thank you for your recent interest in The University of Farmington, a nationally accredited business and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) institution. Here at the University of Farmington we have created an innovative learning environment that combines traditional instruction with full-time professional experiences. We offer flexible class schedules and a focus on students who do not want to interrupt their careers."
At the bottom of the email, it described the university as: "A nationally accredited institution authorized to enroll international students by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security."

What followed was the arrest of 250 students at the fake university in Michigan:

A total of about 250 students have now been arrested since January on immigration violations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of a sting operation by federal agents who enticed foreign-born students, mostly from India, to attend the school that marketed itself as offering graduate programs in technology and computer studies, according to ICE officials

Then, a lawsuit was filed against the U.S. government in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims by attorneys on behalf of the students who were victims of the fake enrollment "being set up by federal immigration agents have the right to sue the U.S. government, a federal court has ruled". Eventually, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that "the hundreds of students who paid tuition at the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills — created by undercover agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — have a legal basis to continue pursuing their claims in court".


Every year thousands of international students from all over the world are excited to apply and finally live that dream. On the side are the resources and emotions involved with the hope of finally getting that yes. This puts many in a desperate situation of being swindled. A fake university recruiting students on legal visas who enrolled and paid $11, 000 plus and then allegedly setting them up to be deported because they were allegedly attempting to "pay to stay" leaves you speechless and leaves you with more question of many "whys". Based on the timeline of reports about this whole situation, this may be likened an alleged case of confirmation bias; having pre-conceived negative notions (and sometimes unconfirmed criminality) about international students and then dangerously running with such extreme ideas to confirm these alleged bias.



The setup was so elaborate with a functional website and all the structures of a real university. Hence, no one suspected whatever this operation was about or which specific demography of international students this was targeted at. International students are usually advised to verify information when applying to schools and opportunities abroad to avoid being scammed by fake admission letters, visas, and schools orchestrated by fake agents. At this level, you then wonder why anyone would even think of such an idea and how were those students able to get visas if this was an actual fake university all set but by ICE, a government agency. According to the Detriot Free Press publication:


ICE started its undercover operation in 2015, creating a fake office on Northwestern Highway near 13 Mile with a website and an admissions process like a regular university. The University of Farmington was even listed on the website of ICE as a school approved by the U.S. government for students. It seemed real to its 600-plus students, a majority of them immigrants from India interested in studying technology and science. Many students are able to live and work legally in the U.S. through university programs such as the one the University of Farmington touted. The students had arrived legally in the U.S. and were on F-1 student visa programs when they enrolled. But it was all an elaborate operation by ICE's Homeland Security Investigations to trick foreign-born students they allege were trying to "pay to stay" in the U.S., a claim the students deny. ICE arrested hundreds of students, deported many of them and others left the U.S. on their own.

Now this is in court, there is a long road of legal battle ahead because ICE will probably defend its reasons for this "operation" even though many will agree it was morally and ethically questionable. This should not have happened but you wonder if the student will not take part of the blame when they eventually get to court. If the students win the case in court what sort of victory would that be? What about students already deported what changes for them? Or those who cannot afford a court case when they are maltreated as international students or even those not included in this lawsuit and similar issues like that never make the news?


The root of the information upon which ICE acted may be known in the future but by then those victims would have suffered even more. These things take time and it is a lengthy process to clear their names after being deported because it is already a red flag trying to get visas to other countries. Whatever victory comes out of this may not be enough to undo the damage already done. Hence, as an international student or a prospective international student, the best way going forward is to protect yourself. Take lessons from this incident and protect yourself.


VERIFY, VERIFY and VERIFY

Before you send any email, accept any offer or make an application, please verify, verify, and verify. Do not jump on any information because someone shared it online as a potential opportunity. The United States of America is known for its world-class education and the large variety of options for international students because of the number of schools across the 50 states. As a prospective international student or even as someone already studying abroad, you have to take things like school history seriously. New universities spring up daily across the world but that means, one must double-check before hopping on that bus. For older well-established universities, you can read about the school's history and academic, research achievements on the websites; the chances of being scammed are relatively less.


Other signs to verify for these new schools are the Professors listed on the school website. Look at their details and verify some of the papers they claim to have published. Read about past students, and ask questions on social media to get people interacting about the school - you will be surprised what you can find from conversations on social media about your "dream" school. When you visit these websites, critically look at the setup page by page; navigate the sections to see if anything is odd.


A man sitting in front of  two computers ina dimly lit room
verify website Information and set up

A simple Google map scan can let you see the school location, the actual layout of the campus (how many buildings? the car park, the student accommodations, the library etc), and look for actual pictures, so you are not trapped with stock photos that sourced from the internet. look out for the usual big signposts common on university campuses (the type of signpost could be a red flag) and then you can add that to your verification. Once you have located the school on Google Maps, you can read about the school's location (Farmington Hills), and the history and even check the Government website for any history about the school.


Nevertheless, this situation was an outlier (or maybe not); an elaborate trap that had all the signs of a real university, you would not even suspect. The school even had a logo.



Blaming the students is out of the question The lengths these federal undercover agents went to set up this operation were staggering as the Detriot Free Press reported:

Undercover investigators with the Department of Homeland Security registered the University of Farmington with the state of Michigan as a university using a fake name.
At the request of DHS, a national accreditation agency listed the University of Farmington as being accredited in order to help deceive prospective students.
The university was also placed by federal investigators on the website of ICE as an university approved by them under a government program for foreign students known as SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Program).

Hence, this all goes back to being careful about new "less popular" schools. This does not mean one should not apply to less popular schools because the option you have the better as competition is always tough for international students competing for limited spots. However, it is important to verify and do your background check. Even a simple LinkedIn search can give you an overview of any past or present enrollment. Be determined to protect yourself with the same determination used to set up these types of dangerous operations.


Right now, no one can say for sure if this was a one-off situation or if there are many more in the US and across the world. International students have been hot new headlines lately along with immigration. If you are not yet a citizen of any country where you presently live, you must use your tongue to count your teeth and follow the news to verify the information yourself.


The August-September season of application will soon be upon us. Hence, many universities will be on the hunt for the best international candidates and millions from all over the world will be in tight competition for limited spaces. When you see headlines like these, your instinct should be to protect yourself by being vigilant. Do not leave anything to chance or remove yourself entirely from the process while trusting an agent 100 %. This may not just be a US situation, it should be a reference point for lessons about choosing any study destination, school or courses around the world on study visa.







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