It's peak business time in Hong Kong for underhand immigration consultants promising they can arrange papers for potential migrants who wish to live and work in the United States. In many cases, dishonest 'advisers' claim to have connections that will smooth the passage of applications for permanent visas. So persistent is the racket that the US consulate-general has issued a statement reminding people to be extremely cautious when dealing with anyone who offers such help. Some companies provide legitimate information and services. Others mislead customers into paying for services they will not receive or do not need. At this time of the year, most visa scams are focused on the annual Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. This US State Department programme distributes 50,000 permanent resident visas worldwide via a computer-generated lottery. The entry deadline is next Sunday, so it's Christmas-come-early for dishonest 'consultants' now scavenging for business. Unscrupulous fraudsters tell people who want to live in the US that they can rig the lottery (which is an electronics impossibility) or that they have someone 'inside' who can guarantee the visa. Con-men persuade the gullible, the desperate or the extremely foolish to hand over money to pay for illegal and non-existent services. Consulate officials stress there is no need for anyone to use a third party. All information and forms are freely available at the consulate or on its website http://hongkong.usconsulate.gov/ . But beware; many bogus websites look imposingly and impressively similar to the official site. Don't be fooled. Some websites demand money to fill in forms for applicants or try to charge money for 'tickets' in the free lottery. Twenty years ago parasitical 'immigration consultants' swarmed around consular offices in Hong Kong, leeching huge fees from families trying to find another home. It was a cruel and heartless racket. It still is. In the 1980s there was panic to get out of Hong Kong. After the signing of the joint declaration pledging the city's return to China, people would do almost anything to get a foreign passport. Prime destinations were the US, Canada and Australia. One specialised industry flourished mightily; it was the era of the immigration adviser. Many consultants who helped people find new homes abroad were decent, committed individuals who believed honestly that Hong Kong faced uncertain times and that the combination of qualities of enterprise, energy and skills offered by potential migrants would be a huge asset to their countries. One of these was a former minister of immigration in his own country who periodically visited Hong Kong and helped people go through the lengthy and complex application procedures. But a large number of these immigration consultants were duplicitous confidence tricksters who relieved victims of large amounts of money for illusory services. Often a family parted with most of its savings to ensure travel documents that could have been obtained for free through a consular immigration office. Well, the migration advisers are back. Recently, advertisements have been appearing in newspapers promising that an individual or a company can help guarantee applicants gain legal entry to the US. Such claims are false. All a third party can do is assist to fill out an application form. They have absolutely no ability to predict or sway the decision of the ponderous American immigration bureaucracy. Twenty years ago, touts would swarm like sharks outside the American consulate in Garden Road and other consular offices. They were as blatant as floggers of copy watches are in Nathan Road today. The fake agents would snare the credulous and lead them away for a talk. Yes, they would promise, they could certainly get the family into the US. No problem. But it would cost a lot of money. People inside the consulate had to be lavishly paid off. These claims, of course, were fiction. The tout would fill out the complex forms which would then be submitted in the normal way. The application request would be processed through routine channels. If successful the tout would take credit. The applicant would think it money well spent and leave for life in the US with the sure knowledge that money could buy anything; why, look how he had paid for a new life! If the application failed, the tout lamented the bribe had not been sufficiently large for the greedy Americans. There was no comeback. The same applies today.