US charges 10 Israelis in illegal network of mall kiosks

Demanding $14.5m in company assets, authorities say Omer Gur-Geiger and his firm hired 140 compatriots without work permits

Illustrative photo of an Israeli salesman demonstrating a beauty product at an American mall. (Creative Commons via JTA)
Illustrative photo of an Israeli salesman demonstrating a beauty product at an American mall. (Creative Commons via JTA)

Members of an Israeli company selling Dead Sea beauty products in shopping malls across the US have been indicted for illegally employing 140 Israeli nationals and failing to declare their salaries to the US government.

The ten Israelis were arrested earlier this week and charges were filed against them at a Virginia court.

Chief among the accused is American-Israeli Omer Gur-Geiger, 36, whose company Rasko operated kiosks in several states. He is charged with illegally employing Israelis who arrived in the US on B-2 tourist visas, which do not allow for holders to work in the country. Gur-Geiger, a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, is further accused of helping several Israelis file false applications to extend their tourist visas.

Gur-Geiger is also accused of failing to deduct tax contributions from the salaries he was paying the illegal workers, according to North Carolina’s News & Observer website.

Omer Gur-Geiger (Channel 2 news)
Omer Gur-Geiger (Channel 2 news)

The nine other Israelis charged in the case were employed by Gur-Geiger.

Prosecutors have estimated the company’s turnover over the past 5 years at $14.5 million, and have asked the court to collect that sum from the company’s assets.

“The object of the conspiracy was for the co-conspirators to use the proceeds of their conspiracy to defraud and commit offenses against the United States to transport foreign nationals on B-2 visas to the United States for the purpose of those foreign nationals on B-2 visas engaging in work, and to pay, house, and transport those foreign nationals on B-2 visas once they were in the United States,” read the indictment.

The indictment charged Gur with 34 counts of conspiracy to defraud the United States, visa fraud, encouraging and inducing illegal entry, harboring illegal aliens, transporting illegal aliens and conspiracy to launder money, Raleigh’s WRAL news site reported.

Young Israelis hawking skin care products, ostensibly made from minerals from the Dead Sea, have become a common sight in malls around the world. They grab customers passing by their kiosks and often coerce them into buying overpriced cosmetics, many in an attempt to make money as quickly as possible to fund post-army travels.

But the aggressive maneuvers utilized by the Israeli salespeople, coupled with the fact that many of them are working illegally, have roused the suspicions of the FBI, US Homeland Security, embassies around the world trying to combat labor fraud, and journalists who are uncovering questionable sales tactics.

In addition to aggressive and predatory sales tactics, the kiosks often skirt legal issues, evading local taxes and employing Israelis who do not have proper working permits.

A 2009 cable uncovered by Wikileaks from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv said that “In the past few years, sales of Dead Sea cosmetics and skincare products at kiosks in shopping malls across America has grown into a huge industry…A lesser-known, but problematic, aspect of the Dead Sea industry is that its personnel is comprised of many young Israelis working on tourist visas, on expired temporary work visas and on training visas. Visa issues are likely to be just the tip of the Dead Sea industry’s tax and labor issues iceberg.”

The leaked cable explained the process through which companies advertise online and in newspapers in Israel — promising exorbitant salaries in the range of $1,500-$3,000 per week — and coach participants how to lie in their tourist visa applications for the USA.

A Wikileaks cable from 2010 noted that few Israelis made decent money, since employers often failed to pay fair wages and there was no way to enforce that because the workers themselves were illegal. The cable noted in a few cases some Israelis actually end up in debt. “After adding in other expenses, they ended up having to pay their employer money when they left, earning nothing, contrary to what was promised,” the cable stated.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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