Are you, a friend, or a family member planning to make a trip from abroad to the United States in the near future? If so, keep these words in mind: ESTA is free. Keep reading to learn more about online bad behavior aimed at snaring hurried or harried travelers trying to follow U.S entry requirements.
Understanding the Threat
Travel rules for visitors entering the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program are changing, and some sites and services are trying to catch those unsure of the new system off-guard, claiming to offer “help” for a fee.
Here are the basics on what you need to know: the traditional I-94 cards – those green forms travelers on short term visits to the U.S. had to fill out in-flight and present upon arrival – are now being phased out and replaced with a new online registration procedure known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). It applies to all those visiting the U.S. from countries which don’t need visas; according to BBC News, this makes up about 50 million people a year.1
The Bad Behavior
While the ESTA application is free of charge, searching for it online may lead you to a number of websites that will offer to help with your application, asking you to give personal details and charging a fee. BBC News recently brought the topic to light, and it was subsequently covered by its Fast Track travel news program, which took a closer look at U.S. entry requirements, investigating consumer concerns over unofficial ESTA websites that have been popping up across the Web.2 These sites either mislead visitors into believing they're on an official site or claim to help you through the process for a price – as much as $250, according to Fast Track.
The information you are asked to provide on the unauthorized application sites asking for payment to process your application includes your passport number, home address, credit card details, and the period of time you will stay in the U.S. This, of course, is all very sensitive information – exactly the kind of details that you would not want to fall into the wrong hands.
When Lavasoft Malware Labs looked into this issue, our analysts found that one Google search returned a sponsored ad for I-esta.org, which offers to process your application for a fee. The following sites are also hosted on the same servers:
What can you do if you’re an international traveler that needs authorization to visit the U.S.? Keep these winning strategies in mind:
- Avoid third party sites and go straight to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s official ESTA site and provide the required information in order to get approval.
- ESTA is free; you should NOT be asked to pay anything!
- Unauthorized sites have no ability to affect or expedite the application process.