Unofficial Visa Agency Websites - Charge Exorbitantly but No Protection for Unsuccessful Applications

17 June 2019
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Unofficial Visa Agency Websites - Charge Exorbitantly but No Protection for Unsuccessful Applications

HKSAR passport holders travelling abroad to some countries, such as Australia and Canada, are required to apply beforehand for an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) at their own expense. The Consumer Council has received quite a number of complaints in recent years alleging that the design of some websites relating to unofficial visa agencies is very similar to that of the official websites in an apparent bid to mislead consumers. Moreover, the fees they charge are often several times higher than those of the official websites. There have also been disputes over application delays and failing to refund for unsuccessful applications.

These third-party websites are usually not transparent in their services and operate as a go-between in merely transferring the applicants’ data to the relevant authorities responsible for the application processing, and notifying the applicants of the outcome. When disputes arise, they hardly have any follow-up actions because these websites may be registered overseas, to seek for redress could be extremely difficult for consumers. Consumers are strongly advised to apply for ETA through the official channels directly to avoid unnecessary losses and the risk of disclosing personal data to unknown parties.

Case 1: Imitating the official website in text display with deceitful intent

Two weeks prior to departure to Australia, the complainant browsed the internet in order to apply for an ETA online. She came across Website A which displayed the Australian national flag and wordings like “immi” and “eta”. She mistook it as the official website of the Australian Department of Immigration. She thus promptly filled in her personal information and paid US$100 by credit card to complete her application for an ETA.

Later she learned that an Australian ETA actually cost only AUD20. She revisited Website A and found at the bottom of the website a notice in hardly legible fine print that the website was run by a private company unrelated in any way to the Australian government. As for application fee, apart from the AUD20 charged by the Australian government, the rest was the service fee charged by the website.

The complainant deemed that Website A was a deliberate imitation of the official website without clear disclosure of the company background, fees or other vital information. She requested the Council to alert other consumers to avoid falling into the same trap.

Case 2: Applying visa via third-party agency with no protection guarantee nor refund for application failure

The complainant, a British National Overseas (BNO) passport holder, applied for an Australian ETA via Website B and paid US$64 by credit card. The next day, he received an email notifying him that his application was unsuccessful. In response to the complainant’s enquiry, Website B replied that it had duly transferred the complainant data to the Australian government but it could not guarantee the application result. Website B then noted that the Australian government might need additional information from the applicant but when pressed further, it could not provide what specific details were required and only reiterated that it had performed its service and suggested him to approach the Australian government direct for further enquiries. 

An officer of the Australian Consulate-General subsequently responded that BNO holders could only apply for ETA through Hong Kong travel agents and airlines, but not via online application. Since Website B was neither a travel agent nor an airline, the complainant was unable to obtain his ETA through Website B and his request for refund was also turned down.

Upon receiving the complaint, the Council sent a letter to the local address listed on Website B but the letter was returned and the email sent was also ignored. Although the complainant could finally obtain a visa through a travel agent, it was highly unlikely that he would be able to recover the payment he made to Website B which is not a Hong Kong company.

Case 3: High search engine ranking not indicative of government website & may be operated by overseas company

While planning a trip to Canada, the complainant and her husband browsed the internet for “Canadian Visa” and based on the ranking of the search result, she accessed Website C which was at the top for ETA application services. Since the design of Website C was so similar to that of the official Canadian government website, she promptly entered their information and paid the application fee equivalent to more than HK$500 per person by credit card.

 The complainant later learned from a relative in Canada that the visa fee was generally only CAD7, and she realized later that Website C was not an official visa application website. Despite the application result from Website C was still outstanding, she wasted no time to submit an application through the official website referred by her relative to avoid delay. Once the payment was made, she was notified by an official email confirming the approval of their ETA application.

The complainant contacted the credit card issuing bank afterwards to request for a charge back of the amount paid to Website C but Website C maintained that it had already provided the service and refused to cancel the transaction. The bank later confirmed that the Website C was under a company registered in Singapore. The complainant recognized the difficulty in securing a refund but was concerned about the risks of similar websites collecting passport and other personal data from applicants. She made a complaint to the Council to draw its attention to such malpractice.

Consumers are advised to pay heed to the following when applying for an ETA online:

- Visa requirement varies from one country to another and different passport holders may have to apply for visas differently. When planning a trip, consumers should check the visas requirement with the relevant local authority or its consulate in Hong Kong. They should also check out the official channels for visa application and the required fee, and allow sufficient time for processing their applications;

- The official website will always state clearly the relevant government department it represents in a prominent position, and display the detailed department address and contact information. If this information is not there, consumers should pay particular attention to the background, terms and conditions, and the disclaimers normally displayed at the bottom of the page or in other inconspicuous places to ensure it is not a fake one;

- Search engine rankings do not necessarily represent the reputation and credibility of individual website. The application for an ETA involves important personal data and must be handled cautiously. Consumers should stay alert if the application fee displayed on the web page is different from or significantly higher than the official fee. Consumers must not make the application hastily as it may result in their personal data falling into wrong hands;

- For enquiries on the visa requirements of different countries, consumers should first check with the respective consulates in Hong Kong. They can also enquire with their friends or relatives who live in the destination country, or licensed travel agencies.

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