Jeanne Price met her husband-to-be in a self-improvement seminar at Fort McNair last year.

"He was not your average 28-year-old," remembers the 50-year-old Price, of Vienna. "He was more mature. He seemed so kind."

After several months of dating the young Pakistani man, Price says, she agreed to marry him.

Minutes after the wedding, as they pulled into a Texaco station, her husband announced that he was leaving for New York, Price remembers. A few weeks later, he called to say he had not made it home "because the potholes are so bad at this time of year," but that his brother was moving in with Price.

"He was just using me to get his U.S. citizenship," she said as she shook her head at her own naivete. "I can't believe I let him manipulate me like that."

Price told the story to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, who are investigating the case. She says she does not know where her husband is and has filed for divorce.

According to Neville Cramer, a supervisory investigator in the INS regional office, Price's story is similar to thousands of "immigration marriage frauds" that occur in the Washington area annually.

"It's rampant. It's been getting worse and worse," says Cramer, who guesses that as many as 250,000 illegal aliens reside in the metropolitan area. While Cramer notes that many aliens are involved in valid marriages, an increasing number each year are exploiting marriage to a U.S. citizen as the shortest chute to legal resident status.

While marrying a U.S. citizen does not guarantee citizenship to an alien, he or she can get an "I-94 application for adjustment of status" card. The card effectively grants many of the privileges of a green card, which gives permanent resident status, Cramer says. The I-94 card can be obtained in any time frame from an hour to several weeks after the immigrant's spouse files a petition, while a green card can take years.

The INS, which is notorious for an antiquated filing system that is only now being computerized, cannot say how much marriage fraud there is in the Washington area. But INS officials and many local immigration lawyers agree that it is a growing problem.

The city's abundance of international agencies, embassies and single women -- combined with an increasing awareness of the ineffectiveness of the INS in prosecuting marriage fraud cases -- make it the ideal setting for such schemes, investigators say.

"They're running right over us," says Eric Barth, one of about a dozen investigators who work with Cramer to ferret out a scattered mother lode of illegal aliens.

Because few INS investigations result in indictments, officials are encouraged by two recent marriage fraud cases in the area: one that led to a grand jury indictment in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia and one in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that led to a conviction.

In the Baltimore case, Michael Bernardin, a Haitian, was convicted of visa fraud when he arranged for two Iranian men to pay two sisters from the District about $500 each to marry them. Bernardin was sentenced Thursday to two years in prison.

Stories such as Price's fit into the "singular marriage fraud" category, a one-on-one situation between an isolated couple, says Cramer. A singular marriage fraud can be carried out on an unsuspecting victim or with a U.S. citizen who is a willing, and usually mercenary, conspirator in the fraud.

Cases such as the Baltimore conviction fit into a second category, called "a marriage ring," in which a third party acts as a kind of wedding broker, making a business of arranging fraudulent marriages for amounts typically ranging from $200 to $6,000, according to Cramer.

"This is a city that has a lot of single women. They are susceptible to wanting to get married," said Cramer, who estimates that about 80 percent of unsuspecting marriage fraud victims are women.

"I see an awful lot of very unsophisticated young women from rural areas who come to town and get taken for a ride," says Margot Champagne, a Washington lawyer who handles many immigration cases.

The frustrations of an understaffed investigations bureau have been compounded, INS investigators say, by recent court rulings that put the burden on the INS to prove that a marriage was undertaken for the sole purpose of getting permanent resident status. If not, the union stands as valid.

Intent is always difficult to argue, INS officials say, and intent in affairs of the heart leads to a region of litigious quicksand. Cases in which at least one of the participants believed they had entered a bona fide marriage, are usually impossible to prosecute, they say.

"Even if we do manage to put together a marriage fraud case, the courts don't necessarily react favorably," said Barth. "It's an image thing -- it appears that we're mean-minded."

"We have women who come in here who have been so . . . it's almost a form of emotional rape. It's as devastating or worse than physical rape," said Cramer. "And there's almost nothing we can do about it."

"He thought it was so funny," said Price, speaking softly with her eyes lowered as she recounts her final confrontation with her husband. "He stood there laughing and said: 'How dumb are you? You're really stupid, like all the Americans. When are you going to come to your senses and realize that I'm just using you?' . . . I called him slime," she continued.

Price, while trying to divorce her husband, has withdrawn the petition she filed for his permanent resident status. But INS investigators explain that her husband, who could not be reached for an interview, may already have what he wants.

"Often it's the benefits, not the green card, they want," said INS supervisory investigator Mark Riordan, explaining that when an American citizen files a petition that classifies their immigrant spouse as a relative, the alien receives the I-94 card that grants open-ended employment authorization and legal residence, as well as eligibility for welfare and student loans.

In cases in which a spouse withdraws his or her petition, INS investigators are authorized to retrieve an alien's I-94 card -- a task that is easier said than done, says investigator Cramer.

"Even when we manage to catch up with the alien, which is a job in itself, he'll just say: 'Okay. I'm illegal. But I lost the card.' In the meantime, the card looks perfectly good to employers and everyone else."

Frustrated in their attempts to fight marriage fraud, local INS investigators have decided to focus primarily on their strongest cases, cases in which they can prove that money was exchanged before the marriage, for instance, or on ring operations.

Investigators Riordan and Barth are proud of the recent investigation that led to a grand jury indictment in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. Three Pakistani men -- Mohammed Rafique, Tahir Javied and Amjid Pervaiz -- were indicted on charges of conspiracy and false statements in a case of alleged marriage fraud. The trial of the men, who have pleaded not guilty to the charges, is scheduled to begin Dec. 11.

It is one of only a few indictments for marriage fraud that local INS investigators can point to in recent years, and Riordan estimates that he and Barth have invested about 1,700 man hours -- or about three months of full-time work each -- on the case.

"It was just one of those lucky breaks that we don't often get," said Barth. While petitioning for resident papers for Rafique, his wife, Marcella Pratt, told INS officials that Pervaiz had paid her $1,000 to marry Rafique, Barth says.

She then agreed to work as an informant for the INS, Barth says.

Investigators now say that they cannot find Pratt, referred to as an unindicted coconspirator in the indictment.

The grand jury indictment alleges that, several months after arranging the marriage, the coconspirators staged a wedding party with a rented wedding dress and planted women's and children's clothing in Rafique's apartment in an effort to make the marriage look legitimate.

Such cover-up tactics are not unusual in marriage frauds, says Jesse D. Grogg, chief of investigations for the Baltimore INS office that handles the Maryland suburbs of Washington. For instance, Grogg says, it has become common knowledge that INS examiners quiz recently married couples on simple domestic matters to determine whether they live together.

"They're pretty well coached when they get to us. Hell, we caught one woman in here with a crib sheet," said Grogg, who produces a worn piece of paper that has a list of answers to questions such as "Where I work," "Where we met," and "Last time we went for dinner."

"The only thing you can do is concentrate on the rings, and savor your successes when they come," says Grogg. "The public at large has absolutely no idea of how much of this is going on. We've discovered one ring that may involve 100 or more marriages."

"I think there's a very big racket going on," says Janet Townsand-Vasquaz, a 26-year-old Alexandria woman who called investigator Cramer recently and told him how she and her 3-year-old daughter, Paulina, had been "temporarily kidnaped" by a group who told her they were from Korea and they wanted her to marry one of them.

According to Townsand-Vasquaz, a "woman in a big green Cadillac" stopped her outside her home one day and asked her if she'd like $4,000 and a free place to live. Townsand-Vasquaz says she was intrigued enough to get inside the car, whereupon the woman said: " 'I want you to marry my son. I give you $4,000 if you cooperate; if you don't, I know people.' "

"I think they'd been watching me," said Townsand-Vasquaz.

"I was new in the area, I don't have many family or friends here. I'm obviously low income, because Paulina and me, we walk everywhere. I'm only 4-feet-11. I felt if I went with them, I'd have more chances of surviving," added Townsand-Vasquaz as she explained why she did not resist when the woman and her friends rented a van and moved her things to their house, where she stayed for five days.

Finally, she says, they let her go, saying: " 'We were going to help you, but now we see we can't trust you.' "

Another Alexandria woman -- who called Cramer about an Iranian man who kept pleading with her to marry him, first "as a friend" and then for a fee of $2,000 -- remembers sitting in a bar recently when a band playing a love song improvised a little on the refrain and crooned: "He's only in it for the green card."

"It's become a joke. That's how big the whole syndrome is," she said. "They know just how the system works."

Cramer says he does not doubt the veracity of either woman's tale. "They've got legitimate complaints," he said. "I just don't have any free men to send out on the case."