En español | With 2 million applications for U.S. passports in the pipeline, bad actors have exploited the bottleneck to try to take money from victims and run. Some of the con artists have pocketed victims’ personal and financial information, putting them at risk for identity theft.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) wrote to the State Department last week noting that many congressional offices have gotten reports that increasing numbers of their constituents have become targets of passport scams. The suburban Chicago lawmaker is among many in Congress demanding fixes.
Underlying trends fuel the fraud. Some foreign countries are opening borders as COVID-19 vaccinations increase. And many Americans have a burning desire to travel after being homebound because of the pandemic. Some call their jaunts “revenge travel.”
There are waits of up to 4 1/2 months for passport renewals and up to three months if an applicant pays the government a $60 fee for expedited service, the State Department says.
Underwood calls the delays “incredibly frustrating” and says business people are losing out and constituents are missing reunions with loved ones, milestone birthdays and weddings abroad.
Fraudsters sell appointments, steal identities
Fraudsters follow the headlines and have swooped down like vultures to make a bad situation worse. Some purport to offer “expedited” service but don't deliver. Others have been selling the “urgent travel” appointments that the State Department offers free of charge at its 26 passport agencies and centers.
Scammers have sold the appointment slots for thousands of dollars to desperate travelers, the Better Business Bureau says. The chicanery prompted the State Department to temporarily disable its online booking system for Urgent Travel Service appointments at passport agencies and centers. Appointment made before the July 21 halt will be honored. And the stoppage does not affect so-called passport-acceptance facilities that include post offices, libraries and other local government offices. Several have online appointment scheduling not affected by the change.
Officials at State said the temporary halt occurred after third parties booked appointments online using automated programs, or bots, and put the slots up for sale. Outsiders “booked all available appointments within minutes of the appointments being posted,” department officials told wannabe travelers, “which prevented many of you from making appointments and made it difficult to determine if your appointment was legitimate or fraudulent."
Adds the State Department: “We are not affiliated with any third-party appointment booking services, and we do not charge a fee to make an appointment."
On the eve of the shutdown, the Better Business Bureau issued a warning saying scammers had been posing as passport expeditors. “Along with money losses in these scams, passports contain critical personal information that unlocks identity theft for years to come,” says Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois. The sales took place on online forums, Facebook and other sites, he says.
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This year through July 27, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center has received approximately 45 complaints about web domains offering passport processing, such as applications and renewals, officials say. Total losses surpassed $1,600, with individual losses in the range of $45 to $70, they say, warning:
“Potentially worse than the financial loss is the potential for identity theft after the victim has input their personal information into one of these fraudulent domains thinking they are applying for a passport.”
According to Bernas, there are legitimate passport expeditors — and they, too, have been hurt by the backlog. But many of the scams arise “from overseas with any scammer being able to create phony messages, emails, websites, Facebook posts, pop-up ads, etc.,” Bernas says.
AARP helpline logs reports of passport fraud
AARP's FraudWatch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, has fielded complaints about passport fraud. Amy Nofziger, who oversees the helpline, says the complaints about passport, rental car and other travel issues are on the uptick.
A Los Angeles woman called the helpline after visiting a passport website with a legitimate-sounding name. She gave up her Social Security and credit card numbers and bank account information. Only after completing an online “application” did she realize she had revealed too much information. Passport applications do not ask for banking information. Take a look at the applications for a first-time passport and a renewal.
According to the State Department, acceptable ways to pay passport fees vary based on whether the application is made by mail, at a passport acceptance facility or with a passport agency.
An Orange, California, man also called AARP's helpline after using a third party to apply online for a passport and being charged $39 — three times. Fortunately, he says, his bank recognized the charges were fraudulent.
For more about passport applications, here's guidance from the State Department.
The State Department urges people to report passport fraud by emailing PassportVisaFraud@state.gov.
AARP's Nofziger says even if a foreign trip is not on the horizon, it's a good idea to check the expiration date of your passport right now, so if needed you can “start the process” of applying for a new one.
Tips for avoiding passport scams:
- Avoid suspicious websites that purport to help you quickly obtain the little blue book. To investigate a site, search its name online with terms such as “reviews” and “complaints” and “scam."
- Check out companies using the Better Business Bureau's website.
- Be on guard for bad actors pretending to be from a government agency. Never trust an unsolicited phone call or email that asks for personal information or fees and supposedly is from the State Department or a passport agency.
- And a tip-off to a rip-off: a request to pay using gift cards, wire transfers or bitcoin. None are acceptable for passport fees.
Editor's Note: This was originally published on July 26, 2021, and has been updated to reflect FBI data on passport fraud complaints this year.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.