Hundreds of Central Asians have been conned out of money by scammers posing as recruiters, middlemen, or representatives of foreign firms offering visas and lucrative jobs abroad.
In the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, authorities exposed a group of scammers who got their unsuspecting victims to pay nearly $50,000 for nonexistent jobs overseas, the Prosecutor-General's press office reported in June.
It said the scammers -- Uzbek citizens -- told people they had acquaintances working at Western embassies who could arrange the visas and demanded an advance payment.
Similar incidents have been reported in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where job fraudsters mostly advertise their so-called services on social media.
Such job scams are not new, but authorities and experts warn that number of fake firms and individual scammers has spiked in recent months amid easing pandemic restrictions on foreign travel.
Vulnerable Central Asian job seekers have also been targeted in Russia, where millions of migrant workers saw their wages and employment opportunities shrink because of the harsh economic sanctions resulting from the Kremlin's war in Ukraine.
More than 150 migrants from Kyrgyzstan paid at least $1,600 each to a private company in Moscow that promised them well-paid seasonal jobs in Europe. But they all ended up out of pocket.
The company -- called Immigration 365 -- demanded the Kyrgyz citizens make up-front payments for services that supposedly included arrangements for work visas and a jobs, some of the victims told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.
Aizada Muradilova, 44, says she paid about $2,000 to Immigration 365, which offered her a job in the farming sector in a northern European country in February.
"They kept delaying it from February to March, then to April," she says. "When I went to their office in April, they said the [employer] has sent me an invitation and that I'll leave [for Europe] soon. But they didn't show it to me."
The company told Muradilova to collect her visa at a consulate in the city of Yekaterinburg. Muradilova traveled from Moscow to Yekaterinburg, some 1,670 kilometers from the Russian capital, only to find out that she had fallen victim to a scam.
Diplomats at the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow confirmed that Muradilova and other Kyrgyz victims have asked for help to recover their losses and catch the hoaxers. Russian police have launched a criminal probe into the scam, the embassy said.
In Kyrgyzstan, police opened 32 criminal probes in the first three months of this year alone into suspected immigration fraud, including fake job offers in Europe, the United States, Canada, and South Korea.
Picking Strawberries In Britain
Thousands of Central Asians have been hired legally in recent months for seasonal farming jobs in Britain to fill a workforce shortage caused largely by Brexit.
Workers from Central Asia have been selected through a third party -- legally registered recruiters who have contracts with British firms.
But scammers in Central Asia were quick to advertise job opportunities in Britain while pretending to be a recruiting firm.
Kyrgyz and Uzbek police said the fraudsters often demand between $100 and $1,000 from the job seekers to pick strawberries in Britain.
It led some British employers to warn potential workers from Central Asia to beware of the scams.
The British company Fruitful Jobs urged potential job applicants in Central Asia to apply through AGRI HR, the only recruitment firm with whom it works.
"In connection with many cases of fraud...we would like to inform you that Osrodek HR (an approved Fruitful Jobs recruiter) does not work with or have any authorized representatives in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, or Kazakhstan," the company wrote.
"Any person who claims that they are [representing us] is acting ILLEGALLY. Please do not pay any company or individual fees and contact us directly to report this," it said.
Authorities in Central Asia advised job seekers to look for work through legal channels and thoroughly check the recruiting companies' credentials.
They warn applicants to stay clear of those who demand payments in advance.
"The number of illegal companies working without a license is on the rise," said Zohid Askarov, a senior official at Uzbekistan's Employment Ministry.
"By law, only an officially registered company has the right to arrange employment abroad; therefore, we ask our citizens to check the company's activities [before paying them]," Askarov said at a gathering in Tashkent.
Experts say scammers take advantage of people's lack of knowledge of basic work and visa regulations, as well as foreign languages.
"When a company tells you it will arrange a work visa in two weeks and demands up-front money for this, it's nonsense. It usually takes three to six months to get a work visa," says Daniyar Mukanbetov, who runs a private employment firm in Kyrgyzstan.