USA visa waiver ESTA scams: Beware third-party websites looking to rip you off

I've been scammed and I'm livid. Fraudsters have fleeced me of $100 to enter the US and I'm as angry as Hillary at a Trump inauguration rally. For someone who travels for a living, I should have known better. But I've fallen for the oldest trick in the digital scammers book – getting sucked in by a dodgy third-party website and paying six times the official fee for an ESTA visa waiver.

And I'm not alone. About 100 complaints have been lodged with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) this year over ESTA scams, with unofficial websites ripping travellers off to the tune of $5000. And that's only those that have been reported. The scam is so rife it prompted Queensland Police earlier this month to issue a warning to travellers visiting the USA to check the websites' bona fides before handing over cash.

Australia is among 38 countries whose residents are required to obtain an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) before travelling to the States under the country's Visa Waiver Program. ESTA applications are made through the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website. They cost $US14. I paid $US88 ahead of a planned trip to Hawaii. That's a lot of mai tais. To make matters worse, the trip was cancelled because of Hurricane Lane.

Disclaimer: I was preparing for two back-to-back international trips and, in my haste, deferred to my (non)friend Google. I clicked on an official-looking site for Australian travellers (aren't we special; that's how they suck you in) and completed the form. At the checkout page there was no price in the payment instructions, and it wasn't until I received an email confirmation that I realised I'd been stung US$88 (AU$125). In Australian money I'd been ripped off about 100 bucks.

"The scam is long-running," an ACCC spokesperson says. "These sites charge the victim a fee to 'facilitate' the visa waiver request, so a valid ESTA authorisation will be granted if the application succeeds, at an exorbitant cost." Some sites call themselves "travel concierges" and use words like "official ESTA application". Many hide their "review and processing" fees in the fine print, and some make no mention of them at all.

I have visited the USA multiple times since the ESTA scheme was introduced almost 10 years ago without any issues. I made an amateur mistake courtesy of the Google gremlins. No pity for the stupid, I hear you. But these shonky ESTA sites are convincing, and it's an easy mistake to make for the travel uninitiated or the time-poor erring on careless. Type ESTA into Google and the page is filled with links to disreputable sites; the first four hits are all paid ads with "esta" somewhere in the title, and the legitimate site is buried halfway down the page. For the record, it's https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

At least my ESTA checked out (as verified by US customs). Some unsuspecting travellers are conned outright and receive nothing. Or worse, they have their personal data and credit card information stolen and are at risk of identity theft and credit card fraud. In most cases, though, the sites are opportunistic money-making schemes that prey on consumer ignorance, rather than phishing fiends.

"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," Queensland Police warned just this week. "Providing your personal information to these websites could be putting your personal information at risk."

I asked CBP how many travellers fall for these scams (it must be thousands; 77 million international visitors crossed Uncle Sam's borders last year). No figures were provided, a CBP spokesperson instead stressing that third-party sites are "NOT endorsed by, associated, or affiliated with" the government and its departments.

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"If a traveller has utilised a third-party site to assist with their ESTA application, CBP strongly recommends that the traveller use their reference number to confirm their application on the official ESTA website (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/) to ensure that their application information is correct in the system, and to avoid delays when they arrive in the United States," the spokesperson said.

To avoid being scammed in the first place, always make sure you apply for an ESTA through the official site. If you have been scammed, contact your bank immediately and see if you can be refunded (it's worth a shot), and seriously consider cancelling your credit card. Check that your ESTA is legit and register a complaint with Scamwatch (www.scamwatch.gov.au). Drown your sorrows with a few mai tais and know you'll be smarter next time.

See also: How a mistake got me banned from the US for life

See also: Not authorised: How I lost my right to visa-free entry into the US

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