But I have to tell you, its not all my fault. There has been other things going on too, and I wanted to tell you about it.
For some of you who know me, you know that I have been trying to obtain my UK citizenship? Well, this has turned out to be one of those horrible drama's where you wonder how this could happen to you. Towards the end of last year I did some internet surfing to find someone who would assist me in this process. I am not a newbie to the whole red tape process of trying to obtain legal documentation and in my infinite wisdom thought I would pay for the services of an institution that does this for a living. So after much surfing I found a website called UK Visa and Immigration (please..click on that link!) and had a quick internet chat with a so-called advisor who promptly called me back (oh the service was so fast at first!) and after discussing my needs and my financial situation he quoted me the princely sum of £1250.00 for citizenship x 3. What they promised to do is to guide me through the whole process, process my application on my behalf and to ensure that I had all the documentation that the Home Office would need and thereby ensure a pain-free process. Of course this fee they were charging did not include the Home Office fee (which was another rather hefty amount for three of us) but I was willing to pay the price if it meant I didn't have to do everything my 'clueless' self and practically being guaranteed that it would be a smooth easy process.
I received a 'client care' letter, which included spelling errors with regards to our names and I pointed this out to them and this was amended. They insisted I sign it and hand over the money promptly so they could begin the work on my behalf. Of course, this is exactly what I did.
A few days later I received an email asking me to fill this and that form out and to send original passports/birth certificates/marriage certificate and other appropriate documents (most of these also originals) to them. It took me a while to get this all together, mostly because I had to wait for my ex-husband to send me crucial permission for the children to take on UK Citizenship (which was a nightmare in itself) but a few months later, I was ready to send most of the documents to them and I called them to get a bit more advice.
This is where the problems started and right here, my little red flag should have gone up. Well, if I am honest, it did...a little, but I didn't really want to deal or admit to myself that something wasn't quite right, so I ignored any doubts that were starting to whisper in my brain. I would call and call and the phone would just ring. Every now and then I would get lucky and someone would answer but my 'Case Worker' was always busy and would have to return my call. When she finally did, she advised me to use an email address, stating that that was the best way to get hold of her. I started to use that and would have to email a few times before I finally got a reply. Anyway, regardless, I sent my original documents off to Birmingham where they were based and had to follow that up with a few emails and calls just to confirm that they had received them.
One time that I phoned and it was answered by an advisor who again claimed that my 'Case Worker' was busy, told me that my case had been closed when I enquired if they could check that my documents had got there. Naturally I freaked out and frantically emailed about this unfortunate development to get a reply stating that it was an internal error and not to worry, that they were still working on my case and that the documents had arrived. They also informed me that they had moved offices and to send any outstanding documents to the new address. (I was still waiting for that ever important letter from my ex that I needed to send to them).
When I received that I promptly posted to the new address and that, is where it all went dead.
Have you ever phoned a company where the voicemail that greets you sends you into a loop? Where, no matter what button you press you cannot speak to a living soul? I checked the website and for some reason all the telephone numbers they used to have listed on it had disappeared. The 'click here to talk to a live advisor' button had also disappeared to be replaced with 'click here to start your UK Visa Assessment' button. Lucky for me, during my efforts over to previous weeks to get hold of them, I had written every number down, and I rang each one. Not so lucky though, each number either rang dead or I got that same pointless voicemail.
'Press 2 if you wish to talk to someone in accounts or if you are calling to enquire as the status of your visa application, please dial XXX XXXXXX 'which as far as I could make out was the UK Border Agency office. Pointless really when you don't even know if your application has been passed onto them yet, nor what your reference number is. Pressing option 2 just takes you back to that same irritating voicemail.
By now, I was somewhat pissed off. I wrote them one email after another, all of them ending with 'get back to me urgently'. But there was nothing.
Even at this point though, I was in denial. I did not want to admit that something was wrong. I was making up all kinds of excuses in my head as to what could be the reason for this. To admit that I had been scammed was just too much for me to do yet. After a few days of constantly calling them and checking for an email response from them I finally got ugly. I sent them one final email where I informed them that unless they contacted me urgently with the status on my application or fully refunded my money and returned my documents, I would be seeking legal advise and made other threats. I copied my husband into this email and as he was on leave at the time and didn't have anything better to do, he went on the case.
Oh my god, this is when it all came out.
My husband uncovered so much information and pointed me to this site. (Yes, I should have spoken to him earlier I know) UK Immigration Barristers (click on it!) and I took one look at it and I knew. The site was so similar to the old one I knew that the same template had been used. He found out information regarding the so called director(s) of the company and found information that linked the two together. Also, the names of all the previous companies they had traded under and had since dissolved to start over again and con more people out of their money. The nightmare reviews he found (all so different from the positive ones they had on their website). It turns out this was happening not just to me but to hundreds of people. He found a page on facebook (since removed due to pressure from them to facebook) dedicated to showing these people for the scammers that they were. And suddenly I was in touch with people who were in the same boat as me.
I was devastated. I wanted to crawl under my desk and just lie there. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I was lost and I didn't know what to do. These people had my life's documents plus £1250.00 and they had done a runner with it.
We found their page on facebook 'UK Visa and Immigration' (since disappeared from facebook) and we started posting on it. We weren't saying nice things and our comments were being promptly removed, as were other non-complimentary posts by other people. We made screen copies of every one to prove that it had been there. Once I had enough information I went to the Barristers site and clicked on the 'click here to talk to a live advisor' button (which has also now disappeared I've just noted) and Mike came online wondering how he could assist me. I pasted a copy of my threatening email into the box and waited. Mike took a while to read it and then profusely denied that they had anything to do with UK Visa and Immigration. I informed him that I had more than enough proof that they were one and the same and that I was now going to the police. Gave him a few lil titbits so he knew that I did have info and then I signed off.
About an hour later my mobile rang. It was Ash Shadat from UK Visa and Immigration on the line, who was acting as if they were still trading and he is just ringing me to tell me that he would be sending my forms back as I my daughter now needed to do the 'Life in the UK' test as she had since turned 18. Well, you can imagine how that conversation went. I told him I wasn't interested in his stories, that I knew the truth and I wanted my money and my documents back or I would be going to the police. He was very sorry about this and would return my documents to me the next day and refund my money to me in full by the end of the next week. By then though, it was too late. I had already gone to the police and reported him, along with all his other friends names and business addresses.
I did get my documents back two days later and I will be honest, the relief of holding them in my hands again made me want to forget everything that had happened. I have as yet still not got my money back and its now two months later. I doubt I ever will, but I have hope because its not just me. I have met a number of people in the same position as me and we are all fighting. Its tiring, so tiring and there is a part of me that just wants it all to go away, but then I read or hear about another person that has been scammed and it just riles me up again.
Two blogs like mine you should check out to get a different version. One from a guy who actually worked there: UK Immigration Barristers Scam and Don't be taken by these scammers who was scammed like me but fought hard and got her money and documents back but is fighting still so others can know.
For reviews: UK visa and immigration and here.
I could go on and on, but I won't because there is just too much info out there I would be here all night. I wish so much I had done my homework before I had handed over my money but there you go. Its done. Now just to fight to get it back. Mostly however, I hope someone that is thinking of using their services will happen across this page and be warned and will stay away. If I can stop just one person from giving away their money to them then it was worth spending the last 2 hours writing all this down.
As for me now, I am still in my funk and I spend loads of time playing pointless games on facebook and elsewhere and watching TV. Its pointless but its brain numbing and that's all I am up for lately. I do however know myself and know that it will pass and I look forward to it when it does because it would be nice to blog again, tweet more and get back to that novel I haven't touched in weeks.
As for these scammers, justice will be done, one way or another. Watch this space.
An Update (24 November 2012):
Whilst writing the above, myself and a few other people were involved in a BBC documentary in exposing these people. I was not allowed to say anything about it due to the BBC wanting to keep it under wraps and not alert them to what was going on. The show was 'Inside Out' and it was to be featured on the BBC West Midlands channel and aired on October 22nd 2012. While I felt very positive at the time that this would make UK Visa and Immigration/UK Immigration Barristers accountable and would get the Police and other legal people involved, as far as my knowledge goes, nothing has really come of it. Ash Shadat was approached and agreed to go on air and admitted that there was 'some issues'. However, he denied that they were trying to scam anyone and blamed everyone but himself for the lack of service and said that they had not received any money from the 'merchants' via which people had paid. Funny that, when I had received an email right after I paid thanking me for my payment, which they have received that day. He went on to say that he would gladly pay people back out of his OWN POCKET if need be, yet still ignored my emails after the show and still hasn't offered to pay me back. He never will. He is a liar and his smooth slick words on the show only show how good he is at it. Sadly too, none of the other 'Inside Out' show across the UK region picked it up so the only viewership the show got was the West Midlands. This is not only a UK wide problem, people abroad too should be seeing this. It effects people across the world!
In saying this, the experience of doing the show was fun and there were moments I felt like a movie star. Especially when filming on London Bridge and having hundreds of people gather round and watch what we were doing whilst I had a camera in my face and had to pretend like that, nor all the people who were staring were there! Fun times and certainly something I will remember forever, and can now happily cross off 'Act on a TV show (on location)' from my bucket list. The guys at the BBC (Jane. Stewart, Giles, Gary) are wonderful too and I am glad to have met them. I understand that there is only so much you can fit into a 10 minute TV segment yet I am still sad that the pain and heartache that was felt by not only me, but by the other 'victims' that were on the show didn't really come through, nor that anything positive (in my understanding) has come from it.
As stated above, I have still not received any money back from Ash Shadat, despite emailing him again after the TV show and calling him on his promise to refund everyone. I did however, get my money refunded from my credit card institution a few weeks back 'pending further investigation' so I hope they take him to the cleaners. I somehow doubt it though. If you have had your money stolen from these scammers and paid via credit card, I suggest you try getting your money back from your card agency. You may get lucky? I know some people who were denied this, but I am one of the lucky ones I guess.
I have to be honest though, I have lost faith in the police and the legal system. It seems they are either not interested, or they just don't have the power to take criminals such as these down?
I am still trying to process my citizenship application, I am filling out the documents myself, which isn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be, though it is a pain in the arse. I will then be taking it to my local council, who offers the service to check it for you, to verify your documents and make copies of them and give them back to you so your originals to not have to go to the UKBA, which is handy if you need them for travel or something. Check the UKBA website to see if your local council offers this service. Its not free (nothing it appears is) but its a damn side lot cheaper than the fees that these scammers charge.
I am just about done with that and hope to be going there next week, at which time, assuming all is OK, my application will go through and it will then be out of my hands. Either way, I am so tired of all of this now and sometimes wish I hadn't bothered, but I guess, if this all goes well the end result will be worth it. It's taken a year to do this, 6 months of which I lost waiting for an agency who promised to make it easier for me and ultimately stole my money and put me through this nightmare. I cannot stress enough how bad they are, and how I wish everyone would read this and not give them a penny. As long as people are paying, they will keep taking.