Some months ago we reported on the frighteningly simple US visa scam in which fraudsters were charging up to $60 for US ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa registrations that cost nothing from the official site. Now we hear of a more recent and similar deception based around the free European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).

According to BBC Radio 4’s Moneybox show, until recently some sites were charging people £10 ($15) for the EU healthcare cards that cost nothing if you visit the official NHS website. Several UK-based firms were politely told to stop the practice by the UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and wisely complied.

The OFT’s remarks on the matter have been annoyingly mealy-mouthed, which probably has to do with the fact that asking for money for free official services is not technically illegal unless it is clearly deceptive (which we would argue it cannot fail to be).

Meanwhile, the much more serious ESTA scams are subdued for the time being. After we contacted Google, pointing out that fraudsters were using the company’s Adwords system to advertise bogus ESTA websites, some of them promptly disappeared. Vainly, we’d like to think that this wasn’t complete coincidence.

Google also appears to have applied some filtering to ESTA sites in straight search results so that they don’t turn up prominently. Perhaps, with a $14 charge coming in on 8 September 2010, the US government itself woke up to the issue and bullied some of easier-to-reach companies into removing the sites. Who knows.

The lesson in both cases is that government departments merrily set up online registration for services without properly assessing the risk of fraudulent and misleading sites popping up to rip people off. Better publicity seems to be the least the public should expect.

As for Google, Adwords campaigns were also allegedly being used to drive traffic to the bogus EHIC sites, which raises issues about how the company vets its account holders.

Until the vetting improves such scams will continue to appear from time to time despite the fact that a
simple search by Google security personnel on their own site would reveal much of the problem long before the complaints roll in.

You’d think the most powerful search engine in existence would have guessed at its power.