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(photo credit: sasson tiram)
The Immigrant Absorption Ministry received special permission from police on Tuesday to divulge information to the public concerning an ongoing case in order to warn olim that a charlatan has been preying on newcomers.
Ministry officials said that a woman had been operating a scam in which she presents herself as a ministry worker and sells fake vacation packages to new immigrants.
The ministry reported that approximately three weeks ago, it received a call at its immigrant hot line in which a newcomer to the country complained that a woman had approached him and sold his family a "vacation package" at a low rate.
According to the victim, the woman had demanded immediate payment, but never returned with the "receipt" confirming the purchase. The reservations, needless to say, were never actually made.
Immigrant Aborbtion Ministry Director-General Erez Halfon railed on Tuesday against the perpetrator of the fraud.
"The fact that a scam is carried out on new immigrants is especially infuriating, not just because it is a case of fraud, but also because it takes advantage of the innocence and weakness of new immigrants," Halfon said. "Our office is working in full cooperation with investigators and I hope that the police will quickly catch the con artist so that more immigrants will not be hurt."
The ministry filed a complaint with the Israel Police's Central District Fraud Unit, which opened a criminal investigation into the incident. Even as police began their investigation, the ministry received a number of new complaints from other immigrants taken in by the scam.
Although police originally requested that the ministry not reveal any details of the case, ministry officials pushed for limited disclosure of the probe in order to warn other immigrants from being cheated.
The woman, whom police know is operating under a stolen identity, approached the immigrants either over the telephone or by frequenting places where she knows that immigrants tend to gather, such as absorption counseling centers and places where large numbers of newcomers are employed.
When asked by some of the victims where she got immigrants' phone numbers, she allegedly replied that she had access to the ministry's databases of olim.
The woman offered the victims vacation packages to the Dead Sea, Tiberias and Eilat, claiming that the packages were subsidized by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.
She would then meet with the unwitting immigrants in person, demanding cash payments, and then telling the victims that she "was going to her car to get the receipts."
But instead of providing the receipts, the woman vanished. Other victims, contacted by phone, were asked to give their credit card details, and were told that she would call back momentarily. She never did.
In many cases, she left purchasers a fake phone number to contact her.
Most of the victims were in the Tel Aviv and central areas of the country, but ministry officials emphasized that incidents were reported as far south as Ashdod, and they are concerned that she might try to expand her area of operation.
Although many of the victims were immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, immigrants from other countries have also been taken in by the scheme.
Ministry officials said that they have instructed their fieldworkers to inform immigrants about the scheme and to warn them against falling for the fake vacations. The ministry emphasized that it does not subsidize any vacation packages of any type, and that any such offer must not originate from the ministry.
The ministry has requested that immigrants who have been cheated by this scam contact its information hot line at (03) 973-3333.