Monday, November 16, 2015

"Faked" ESTA web sites - how to get your money back

Visitors from countries under the Visa Waiver Program still require an electronic "visa" to travel to the US. This is called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

ESTA is a DHS web site, and some passport and identity information are required to be submitted via a series of web pages. Anyone can apply on behalf of anyone as long as you supply the required information. You get immediate approval if the data you give meet the criteria. Pay $14 and you are done. The approval information is in the computers and the immigration counter staff will look that up when you arrive at the port of entry.

It is trivial to set up a web site to ask the exact same questions as the DHS web site, collect $50, and then go the DHS web site to submit an application using the information given by the visitor to your web site. You get to keep the difference. There are MANY web sites that do just this. They have official sounding names such as usavisaonline.com, esta-america.org, and so forth. The web sites are well done, sporting logos with the American flag and the Statue of Liberty to make them look official. And these web sites appear as the top results when you Google for ESTA or similar, above the real DHS web site.

In the past, I had advised and prevented friends from paying extra to use this unnecessary service. Today, in haste and a moment of carelessness, I went to the first link on Google search and proceeded to apply an ESTA for a relative. I don't remember drinking or smoking anything. Only after clicking the final payment Submit button did I notice that it was $87! It was too late. A binding contract has been signed.

The anger at my own stupidity make my head go into a frenzy. Calling Citibank to cancel the credit card transaction was at the bottom of the list of options. I assessed I had one chance to get my money back, IF the people running DHS were just competent enough. I had only minutes, if not seconds to prove my hypothesis. I set to work furiously.

That was 4.35pm. At 5.46pm I received the following email from the unnecessary service provider which I shall not name:

We attempted to submit your travel authorization processing request; however, we found that you already have an authorized application with the same passport details. Consequently, we will not be able to assist you, and you will not be charged for our processing services. Your credit card transaction has been canceled.

Phew!

Innovative entrepreneurs, cunning, above board, and very professional. Or perhaps they have made boatloads from many others already.

It must have been a slow typist that saved me my money.