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Visa waiver sites charging “excessive” fees target US- and Canada-bound travellers

SINGAPORE: It all started when 26 year-old Anna was planning to travel the US in August.

usareisen_esta“I knew I needed ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) to enter the US, so I just Googled ‘ESTA Singapore’ and clicked on the first link that Google delivered,” she recounted.

While Anna, who declined to reveal her full name, was initially surprised that the site quoted her an “absurdly expensive” charge of US$83 (S$115) for processing her application, she did not think much about it, citing the site’s official look and the fact that it was the top link on her online search.

“It was only after my friend and I discussed it that we realised the website was not the official website,” she said. “By that time, my credit card had already been charged.”

The site she used charges a US$69 processing fee on top of the US$14 charge levied by the US government for applying for an ESTA. On the website, applicants are required to fill in personal information like their passport details, personal income, as well as credit card details – the same information they would need to fill in if they had applied online through the official website.

UNNECESSARY FEES

esta-google-results-dataSingaporeans do not require a visa to travel to the US, but under the US government’s Visa Waiver Programme, they must obtain authorisation through the ESTA before initiating travel.

Applications are done through the US Customs and Border Protection website for a fee of US$14.

“The ESTA site is easy for travellers to navigate on their own and responses are often available within hours,” said US Embassy Singapore spokesperson Camille Dawson. “Third party sites do not increase the chance of ESTA approval or a more timely result.”

“The public is encouraged to file their applications through the CBP.gov site and avoid the excessive fees charged by .com sites.”

But these sites are prevalent: A check on Google by Channel NewsAsia found more than five such third-party sites. These sites appeared prominently on the first page of search results, and depending on the keywords used, can appear above the official ESTA application website.

transiting through the country will require a similar authorisation from early next month. Applying for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) on the official Government of Canada website will cost C$7 (S$7.30). While this requirement came into effect in March, the Canadian government granted a leniency period for travellers to ensure they were not caught unawares. This leniency period will end in November.

But even though the leniency period has not yet ended, similar third-party sites have already surfaced: one website found by Channel NewsAsia charges US$45 for its application service, including the C$7 cost charged by the Canadian government.

Close to 500 people have reached out to the Canadian government about these websites, according to a spokesperson from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). “Some of them had used these sites and ended up paying unnecessary fees and/or never got an eTA in the end, while others were close to applying but realised when they saw the fees that it wasn’t the official site.”

“These sites are not operating on behalf of the Government of Canada, and we advise travellers to be cautious in all dealings with companies that claim to offer help in getting an eTA,” IRCC added.

One added danger: Sharing personal information with these third-party websites could leave travellers open to credit card fraud or identity theft. “Such sites will not be bothered with data protection and travellers’ information could be used for questionable purposes including fraudulent activities,” noted the Consumer Association of Singapore’s (CASE) Executive Director Seah Seng Choon.

SEEKING REDRESS

But should a Singaporean traveller feel they have used these websites under the impression they were official, there are limited avenues within the country to seek redress.

For one, CASE said it would not be able to help as most of these sites are based overseas. “Such sites are out of our jurisdiction unless those countries in question have a Memorandum of Understanding with us,” said Mr Seah.

He explained that CASE can only assist in overseas disputes if a MoU was signed with the relevant consumer body in those countries, and advised those who have been duped to report such matters to the relevant embassies.

Travellers can also write in to the third-party websites to request for a refund.

“I emailed them and managed to get my money back quite easily, within a couple of days,” said Anna. She did, however, cancel her credit card as a precaution.

Both the US and Canadian governments are also taking steps to ensure unwary travellers do not fall into the trap.

The US Customs and Border Protection website carries a warning about these third-party sites. “CBP cannot refund the money you paid to a third-party website,” it said. “However, if you think you have been victimised, contact your bank or credit card company and request a refund of any amount over the US$14 required by the US government by disputing the add-on charges on your statement.”

The Canadian government has also taken a number of steps to combat these sites, said IRCC, adding that they are “very concerned” that travellers are getting caught unaware.

“We have posted information on our website and are using our social media channels to warn travellers about these unauthorised websites,” it said.

IRCC added that the eTA website data has also been revised so the description text in major search engine sites states that the IRCC site is the sole official website for travellers to apply for an eTA. “As well, we continue to share information with Google about these sites in an effort to prevent them from promoting their services.”

 






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