Not a Love Story: The Many Faces of Marriage Fraud

February 14, 2015 Updated: October 8, 2018

Oregon would-be first lady Cylvia Hayes confessed this week to marriage fraud. On Friday, her current fiancé, four-term Gov. John Kitzhaber announced his resignation.

Of course, his resignation is more over fishy deals the state cut to Hayes’s company than her fake marriage two decades ago. At the time, Hayes helped herself through college with $5,000 from a young Ethiopian who needed a Green Card and the criminal offense is already statute-barred.

But still, it is good to remember marriage fraud is a federal crime punishable by up to 5 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

The Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t provide any statistics on the prevalence of marriage fraud. It seems authorities rarely crack down on individual cases, although they do occasionally break criminal enterprises of systematic marriage fraud. And sometimes the crime just pops up as a sideshow in the weirdest circumstances.

Typical and Less Typical Cases 

Marriage is the most common way to U.S. citizenship. Over the past decade more than a third of all people becoming permanent residents did so through marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. That’s about 350,000-400,000 people a year.

Yet when the couple marries for the sole purpose of a Green Card it becomes a marriage fraud. Assessing a couple’s true intention may be difficult and so there are different kinds of marriage fraud based on the way the government finds out.

Ms. Hayes committed the most common one–she got paid, the couple never lived together, and probably never were a couple to begin with.

If a third party arranges such marriages en masse, there’s a good chance the government would be willing to pay attention and bust the operation.

Another kind is when an American is tricked into a marriage only to get divorced after the Green Card paperwork is in. In these cases the government may have the heartbroken American as a witness. But such scenarios are more rare. For the last 30 years, the law has stipulated that the couple must live together for at least two years before granting a Green Card. That’s a long time to spend faking a relationship.

There are also instances where an American is forced, usually by parents, into marriage with a foreigner.

Less than two years ago, a Brooklyn man was arrested for forcing his daughter to go to Pakistan and marry a man to get him a U.S. visa. The daughter was held captive in Pakistan for a year before escaping back to the United States.

When she refused to return to her father’s home, the husband arranged killing of two relatives who had helped the woman escape. 

Another sinister form of marriage fraud entails marrying an American and then accusing him of abuse. In this case, the victim gets the Green Card immediately and the defendant is not even informed he’s been accused of something. There’s some anecdotal evidence of this happening, but it seems rare.

Some have even found ways to steal from the government through faux marriage. A few years ago, a couple of marriage fraud schemes got exposed in the Navy and Marine Corps. Since the military allows married men to live off barracks and collect higher pay, sailors and marines were fake-marrying foreign women to help the women immigrate while defrauding the government of hundreds of thousands in benefits, and reported.


In the past several years there have been some high-profile and some outright bizarre cases of marriage fraud.

One of the possibly weirdest cases involved Portland Police Sergeant Lynn Benton who fake-married a Brazilian man in 1992. We would never have learned about it if Benton hadn’t done the following: Benton got a gender change, married Debbie Higbee-Benton, allegedly ordered a hit on her, then beat and strangled her to death.

Benton’s police department, looking for a way to quickly get rid of him while the murder case was being investigated, found he committed a marriage fraud and watched pornography during work. That was enough to fire him, reported.


Sometimes marriage fraud pops up where the least expected, which was the case of “Clueless” star Brittani Murphy. Murphy died of pneumonia five years ago. Her husband Simon Monjack died of pneumonia five months later. A blog dug deeper into the case and found a document suggesting Murphy and Monjack were investigated for marriage fraud.

Actress and Ex

You may have never heard of Mexican-born actress Fernanda Romero. In 2010 she was arrested for paying an American to marry her. Her act may have fooled the immigration, if it weren’t for her ex-boyfriend who informed the authorities of the sham marriage, CBSNews reported.

From Fraudster to Legislator to Fraudster

Just last year a New York assemblywoman pleaded guilty to marriage fraud allegations. If it weren’t for the $8,000 she paid for a fake marriage and the subsequent legal status, she couldn’t have run for the office in the first place. But would that have been a bad thing? After all, she also confessed to bankruptcy fraud and an illegal campaign contribution, the Daily News reported.

Aging Beauty and the Beast of Inheritance

Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, a beauty symbol of the 1950s and 1960s, made headlines again when she was almost 90. In 2013 she accused her ex-boyfriend of using a fake marriage to secure her inheritance.

Javier Rigau y Rafols, the man in question, allegedly used Lollobrigida’s lookalike to stage a marriage to the star. Yet both the man and Lollobrigida’s former lawyer say Lollobrigida agreed with the arrangement and signed legal documents to allow the marriage. Moreover, Rigau said he had a pre-nuptial agreement with Lollobrigida excluding him from inheritance, The Telegraph reported.

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