Scammers, monsters that they are, have found a new way to exploit people made vulnerable by the coronavirus pandemic.
You may have heard that getting travel passports is difficult right now.
So have the scammers.
The pandemic has created bottled-up demand from people eager to finally travel again following more than a year of restrictions. The result has been 2 million applications in the pipeline and much longer waits than usual to receive the passports.
According to the U.S. State Department, most applicants for renewals or new documents must wait at least 4 1/2 months for processing and at least three months if they pay for the $60 expedited service. Prior to the pandemic, these wait times were generally 6-8 weeks for normal processing and three weeks for expedited service.
In March 2020, the State Department significantly reduced its passport operations to protect its staff. but said appointments at their limited number of passport agencies — the only option for last-minute documents — were generally restricted to “life-or-death emergencies” or “urgent” travel needs within 72 hours. People in either category may apply by phoning 877-487-2778 to apply, but “(w)e cannot guarantee you can make an appointment.”
Enter the Scam Artists
Spotting opportunity, scammers have swooped in like vultures to prey on people – many facing desperate travel needs – and extract money from them with various scams. In one of them, scammers use bots to swoop in and book available time slots at the State Department’s passport agencies and then sell those slots to desperate people for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.
The situation got so bad that on July 21 the State Department “temporarily disabled” its online booking system for Urgent Travel Service, saying on its website that it did so “due to the problem of third parties booking appointments online using automated programs, or bots, and then selling these appointments to customers with urgent travel needs.”
One week later, the service was still disabled, and people needing urgent passports were instructed to phone the agency’s 877 number. But some media stories say people have been unable to get through by calling.
Scammers Also Seek Personal Information
In some instances, scammers are looking for more than money. Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, told AARP.org, “Along with money losses in these scams, passports contain critical personal information that unlocks identity theft for years to come.”
Some victims report that they visited passport websites that appear legitimate. One Los Angeles woman told AARP she visited one of those sites and gave up her Social Security and credit card numbers, as well as bank account information.
Tips to Avoid Being Scammed
AARP offers a list of tips to protect would-be travelers from being victimized by passport scammers:
- Avoid suspicious websites that promise to provide fast results.
- Check out companies using the Better Business Bureau’s website.
- Be wary of phone callers or email solicitations claiming to be from the State Department or a passport agency.
- If someone asks for payment via gift cards, wire transfers, or bitcoins, they are almost certainly a rip-off artist. None can be used to pay passport fees.
If you think you have been victimized by a passport scammer or know someone who has, you should file a report. Here are a few ways to do that:
Be on the lookout for these unscrupulous con artists. Don’t fall for them; but if you do, fight back.