It’s been eight years since the United States government introduced a charge for visa waiver authorisations. That’s eight years of opportunistic fraudsters hoping to make a quick buck.
Almost as soon the fee was implemented, very official looking websites popped up online offering to facilitate the application process (for a hefty price). And according to Queensland Police, Aussies are still falling prey to these third party sites which are, at best, ripping us off, and at worse, putting our personal information at risk.
If you’re planning on heading to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, you are required by law to obtain an authorisation before travelling. This authorisation is obtained online through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA™), a service administered by the US Government’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) website.
But the Queensland Police Service is urging travellers to be wary of how they obtain their ESTA and to avoid third party vendors, Courier Mail reports.
“Unauthorised websites acting as third-party providers of visa waivers are charging unnecessarily inflated fees and may even be putting travellers’ personal data at risk without providing a visa waiver to paying customers,” Queensland Police said in a statement.
“These websites vary in how they operate and while some websites are lawful third-party providers charging significant ‘service fees’, other websites fraudulently impersonate the US Government and charge customers exorbitant amounts without ever providing the visa waiver.
“While personal information is used by many businesses for legitimate purposes, this is not always the case; providing your personal information to these websites could be putting your personal information at risk.”
The US government is aware of such sites and advises travellers that they “are not endorsed by, associated with, or affiliated in any way with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the U.S. Government”.
So how do you know if it’s the real thing?
US government websites can be identified by .gov. There is only one official ESTA website and that is https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
The cost of a visa waiver obtained from the USA Government, the official ESTA provider, only costs US$14 no more. This includes the administration fee.
The process is straightforward, so if you’re on a site that warns of complications and difficulties, chances are it’s not the real thing.
What do you do if you’ve used an unauthorised site?
If you’ve used a third party site, the US government “strongly suggests” that you check the company actually applied for an ESTA on your behalf (some do this, they just charge loads to do so). If you’ve been supplied with a reference number check it at the official site (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta) to ensure that your application information is correct in the system, and to avoid delays when you arrive in the United States. You do not want to head to the US thinking your ESTA is sorted only to arrive and find out it’s not.
And remember the US government cannot refund the money paid to a third party website.
For more information regarding the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), please visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website at: www.cbp.gov/esta