Sure enough, checking the search engine on Saturday showed zero results for sites that attempt to get visa applicants to pay inflated prices for a $14 visa - up to $50 per applicant - so it looked like the Guardian’s campaign might have lived up to its promise.
The ESTA system has been a nice money-spinner for businesses able to trick people into paying way over the odds for visas on the pretence of helping them with 'streamlined applications' and 'instant application results'. Money forums suggest many, many people have fallen for this pitch in the UK alone. Globally, the 'services' offered on regional search engines must offer vast and easy pickings.
In fact, the number of these sites has been in decline for some time, affected presumably by the search engine’s decision at some point in recent times to more thoroughly vet adwords applicants. As Techworld pointed out as long ago as 2010, Google was not only allowing the scammers a prominent place in search results it was taking money from them for a place in the right column of every search result containing the term ‘ESTA’.
Techworld kept on complaining, finally giving up in 2011 after a parting shot pointing out that search engines seemed blind to what was happening.
So is the Guardian’s well-meaning campaign really a triumphant choke point? Probably not; sad to report, only days on, at least one third party ESTA site has crept back into search results and so it will continue because these sites can, in truth, only be stopped by Google itself.
It could be worse. A visit to Microsoft’s Bing reveals a long list of predators still mining the ESTA visa con. Google has been scandalously slow to target this issue, hiding disingenuously behind the claim that it couldn’t stop them because they they are, technically, legal, but Microsoft is possibly years behind even that position. Bing is so small and insignificant that nobody even complains about it.
The correct ESTA application website can be found here. Accept no imitations.
One final and bitter irony. Even if you do pay using the correct site, you're not safe.
Last year I paid for an ESTA visa through the legitimate US Government website using a debit card *that had never been used to make any other transactions*and I checked that last part of the story very carefully. Several weeks later my bank phoned to tell me I had been defrauded to the tune of about $500 on this very card after money was removed via ATM in Milwaukee.
Is it coincidence that the US Government payment processor at the time of the purchase was also in Milwaukee? An odd coincidence perhaps but not one that engenders much faith in US Government security.
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