The student victims of a brazen, half-million pound scam.
They are the words that any first generation migrant dreads: “Your application for further leave to remain in the UK has been refused under paragraph…”, the Home Office letter, dated 16 October, states.
Despite being just words on a piece of paper, there’s an ominous ring to such correspondence – and often means the end of a life’s work or the shattering of a long-held dream.
In the case of Ankit Pachchiger, a 29-year-old student from Gujarat, the letter was doubly ominous because under a sub-heading titled “Reasons for Refusal”, the Home Office claimed that the Business Studies graduate had used “deception” in applying for a Tier 2 work permit to remain in the UK.
The apparent deception related to a document, submitted along with his application, called a “Certificate of Sponsorship” (COS) which the Home Office said was a fake.
“I was absolutely shocked and felt like my whole world and all the work I had put in, in the UK, was crashing down around me”, says Pachchiger, whose family had spent nearly £20,000 for his degree from the University of Ulster.
Victim Ankit Pachchiger.
Under Home Office rules, the use of deception in applications results in an immediate 10-year ban from entering the UK – no questions asked. According to an immigration expert the UKAsian spoke to, such a ban in the UK invariably leads to difficulties when applying for visas to other countries in the West because of data-sharing between agencies in different countries.
A panicked Pachchiger immediately contacted Alpesh Patel, a West London-based immigration advisor who runs an advisory firm named Aaryas Careers and who had handled his application.
For the application and associated costs, Patel had charged Pachchiger more than £15,000 – a staggering amount for a visa application. Patel claimed that the amount included the visa fee (£651), his “consultancy” fee, with the remainder to cover the cost of “training” at a company called Ontime Transport Ltd which would provide Pachchiger with a job and Certificate of Sponsorship.
When Pachchiger went to meet with Patel at his serviced office inside the Mille building in Brentford, West London, Patel reassured Pachchiger that the Home Office refusal was owing to an “administrative error” and because Ontime Transport had not responded in time to a verification email sent by the Home Office.
Fraudster Alpesh Patel.
Patel insisted that the matter would be resolved and that he would immediately file for an “administrative review” with the Home Office.
A week later the Home Office responded to Pachchiger, saying that the administrative review had not found any administrative error – the Certificate of Sponsorship provided by Ontime Transport was indeed a fake.
The alarm bells truly began ringing for Pachchiger at this point.
“He (Patel) kept insisting that the COS was absolutely fine and that Ontime Transport was a legitimate company”, Pachchiger says.
Days later, he went to Patel’s office only to find a number of other students milling around awaiting answers from Patel.
They started comparing notes and eventually agreed to meet outside the office. What they found was shocking.
As stories were shared around, a common theme emerged.
All of them, some twenty in all – 17 from India, 2 from Nepal and one Iranian student – were clients of Alpesh Patel.
All twenty had gained undergraduate or post-graduate degrees from some of the best universities in Britain, including Sunderland, Newcastle, Anglia Ruskin and Cardiff and had subsequently applied for Tier 2 Work Permits – as recommended by Alpesh Patel.
All twenty had applied for the work permits through Ontime Transport – and another company called ‘Clarabridge Ltd’, purportedly a care home operator – but had all been refused on the basis of using deception in their applications.
Distressing Consistency: Some of the Home Officer letters received by the victims, all of them with the same “Reason for Refusal” – A fake Certificate of Sponsorship.
The deception? A fake Certificate of Sponsorship.
As the group compared notes, the “deception” was revealed.
The group all believe that they are merely the tip of a rather massive iceberg and there are at least 20 more students who were clients of Alpesh Patel and Aaryas Careers. And their stories have a distressing consistency to them.
In each case, Patel was approached by the applicants for immigration advice. Having completed their studies some had the choice of continuing with post-graduate or research work or applying for Tier 2 Work Permits as skilled graduates. All of them chose the latter.
All of them were also sent on job interviews by Patel to a variety of companies with names such as ‘BondCare’, ‘Advanced Health and Care’ and even the mobile phone operator Lycamobile.
However, in each case, a job offer only transpired from either Ontime Transport or Clarabridge Ltd.
Pachchiger recalls: “I went for an interview Ontime Transport. It was, just like Alpesh’s office, a serviced office near the A406 in north London. I was interviewed by a man called Kushal Shah who asked me about my studies and carefully examined my documents. I thought the interview went well and days later Alpesh called to tell me that I would be offered a job with Ontime but that I had to go through “training” which would cost extra.
“I had already paid him £3000 in advance for advice and for the visa application process and he told me that the “training” at Ontime Transport would cost an additional £10,000. I agreed to it.”
On 19 August 2015, Pachchiger received an email – from Ontimetransport@outlook.com – confirming that a “Certificate of Sponsorship” would be issued for Pachchiger. The email provided a unique number – similar to one which the Home Office would have generated for a legitimate company with permission to sponsor workers such as Pachchiger. Only in this case, the number was a fake.
“Ontime Transport also provided me with an employment contract and a job description as required by the Tier 2 Application”, Pachchiger says.
“On 21 August, Alpesh applied for a Tier 2 application on my behalf, while I was at his office. It now strikes me as strange but he was filling out the application on my behalf but never asked me any questions or asked me to check anything. Given that he and his company were registered Immigration Advisors, I didn’t question him. As part of the application he also included the email from “Ontime Transport” confirming the Certificate of Sponsorship.
“We now know that it was a fake”.
The students believe that Patel made the applications knowing full well that they would all be rejected.
His intention, they claim, was to exploit the Home Office’s own procedures and drag it on until such time that the applicants ran out of all options and were ordered to be deported. Weighed down by tens of thousands of applications – ranging from asylum claims to permanent residencies – the Home Office is notorious for moving along with as much vigour as a continental plate.
Notably, when the victims also later went through their applications, they found that Patel had made it out that they were filling out the application themselves and not him as their “legal representative”, essentially exonerating himself.
“Basically, he would file the application. Two months later, the application would be rejected. Then he would file for administrative review which would take a couple of more weeks. Then when that was rejected he would send for a judicial review of the decision which would take longer. And when all these reviews are exhausted, we would be left with no option but to leave the country, allowing Alpesh Patel to wash his hands off us and scam even more innocent people”, said one student who wants to remain anonymous as she doesn’t want her family in India to worry.
Kushal Shah – “MD” of Ontime Transport. He also posed as “Sid Banerjee”, “MD” of Clarabridge Ltd.
Patel – and his associates Ronak Patel and Kushal Shah – were so brazen that in October he took Pachchiger and a number of other students to the High Court in Central London to apply for the judicial review.
He allegedly asked the students to sit in the reception area of the Court while he went off to see his “barrister” inside the court. However, the victims claim that he had not referred to them when filling out the application for Judicial Review or even to sign the application.
One of the applicants had since been issued with “Removal Orders” by the Home Office although a stay has been placed on the order while the Home Office investigates the matter.
All the while, they are not allowed to work under immigration rules and have had to rely on savings and handouts from family and friends to survive.
The UKAsian confronted Patel at his office in Brentford on Friday 22 January as he returned from a three-day visit to Amsterdam. He was in an aggressive mood as he declared that “Barristers would sue us” and claimed that he didn’t want to speak to us because we had “failed to make an appointment”.
When pressed about the money he had taken from the victims, a clearly agitated Patel called the police. We refused to leave until we had some answers. He insisted that we come back in three days’ time.
It was important for us to not leave as this man had been evasive with many of the victims. One, Srivani Suggala, told us that on one occasion she had gone to Patel’s office demanding answers and had tried to film the encounter on her phone. An enraged Patel had then slapped her, Suggala claims.
When we refused to leave, Patel called the police who arrived and heard out both sides of the story and eventually got Patel to agree to speak to us.
Unsurprisingly, he denied everything, claiming that he had not taken any money from the victims but had merely helped them. He also demanded that we show evidence of any further money taken from the victims. When we produced the hand-written receipts he had given the victims, he pleaded ignorance. When confronted him with a £3000 bank transfer one victim had made to him, he maintained that he receives bank account payments on a daily basis and would not be able to provide clarification.
He also claimed that his associates Ronak Patel AKA Nawal Patel and Kushal Shah – the apparent “owners” of Clarabridge Ltd and Ontime Transport were, in fact, to blame as they were the ones who had taken monies from the victims.
On Monday 25 January, we confronted Kushal Shah who denied all knowledge of the victims or their plight or even Ontime Transport Ltd. He refuted claims that he had interviewed Pachchiger or had offered any jobs to anyone – despite Alpesh Patel variously telling us on camera that Shah and Ronak Patel had in fact employed him to give immigration advice to the victims and taking money from them for “training” purposes.
Several of the victims have provided us with audio recordings they claim is of Kushal Shah talking about their applications although it is difficult to verify whether it is him.
Shah did admit to us that he, along with Ronak Patel and Alpesh Patel had once run a small college in West London which was closed down in 2014.
Subsequent calls to Shah and Ronak Patel have since gone unanswered.
The UKAsian has seen reams of documents, including bank statements showing large money transfers to Alpesh Patel – as well as to the account of his wife – as well as scores of receipts but are unable to publish them here owing to the on-going police/home office investigation.
Intriguingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, both Clarabridge and Ontime Transport are names of legitimate companies – the first a US-based Customer Experience Management company with operations in London, Brussels, Barcelona and Singapore; the second a Warwickshire-based transport services firm.
Neither company have ever heard of Alpesh Patel, Kushal Shah or Ronak Patel.
Some of the victims claim that Ronak Patel had on several occasions introduced himself as ‘Sid Banerjee’ which happens to be the real name of the US-based Executive Chairman of Clarabridge.
We have contacted Mr Banerjee for a separate comment but he is yet to respond to our requests.
This week it has also emerged that police in Gujarat as well as British consular staff in India are investigating Alpesh Patel for an alleged scam where he is offering to obtain visitor visas for couples in return for thousands of pounds.
The British High Commission in Delhi has refused requests for comments as it is an ongoing investigation.
According to one media report, Patel and his company ‘Aaryas Careers’ were printing fake visitor visas and pasting them on to the passports of unsuspecting applicants in the guise of being a registered member of the “Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner”.
Here in the UK, the matter has been referred to the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police which are investigating.
Many of the victims fear that Patel will be let off as he has been able to – largely – cover his tracks, particularly in relation to the exchange of money. In a vast majority of cases, he asked funds to be transferred into bank accounts other than his own and accepted large sums in cash, issuing simple receipts.
With regards the issue of the Certificate of Sponsorship, the victims – as well as a Home Office insider we spoke to – confirmed that it was a fake. Proving that will be left to the Home Office who will have to trawl through a small mountain of documents and trace a host of emails.
As investigations continue, the personal cost of the scam has been terrible.
By some estimates, Patel and his associates Kunal Shah and Ronak Patel may have earned nearly half a million pounds from the scam.
Many of the victims have stripped their savings bare whilst others have had to pawn jewellery and raise loans. All of them say that they have been duped by a man who feigned legitimacy because he was registered with the OISC.
The Iranian victim tells me that she didn’t suspect anything because Patel told her that he had helped hundreds of applicants switch to a variety of visa categories.
One victim, Inderjit Kaur who has two small children, had taken loan for £10000 on the 26th of October, handing the money over to Alpesh the very next day in return for a hand-scrawled receipt.
“It has been devastating”, Mrs Kaur says. “We are unable to work, my husband also cannot and we have had to rely on people to help us. Our future is in doubt. Everything is lost”.
Another victim, who wants to remain anonymous, had just completed a Masters Degree in hospitality from a major London university and had more than a year left on her student visa when she approached Patel to seek advice on applying for a Tier 2 visa.
That visa now stands cancelled and she is facing a ten-year ban with the passport currently retained by the Home Office as investigations continue.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the story is that there is very little recourse for the victims in Britain. They say they have been scammed by an unscrupulous fraudster and is also under pressure from an immigration system that is blighted by delays and designed to do everything in its power to get them out of Britain as fast as possible.
Have you come into contact with Alpesh Patel, Kushal Shah or Ronak Patel? Let us know. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org