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A colleague accidentally purchased a US ESTA from a scam site that I won't dignify with a link, charging him $31. (The official site charges just $14.) Like most scam sites, the site actually did get him an ESTA, they just took a fat cut.

He'd like to request a refund (the site promises they have a 30-day refund policy), get his money back and try again via the official site, but the US Embassy in Australia says:

If you think you have been victimized, you can contact your bank or credit card company and dispute the charges on your statement. Please be aware that if the $14.00 charge submitted to the U.S. government is refunded, the ESTA approval will automatically be denied and future applications may also be denied.

$17 is not worth getting blacklisted from ESTA and having to apply for visas the hard way! But is this is a bureaucratic "may" in the sense of "this could theoretically happen but never does in practice", or "this is what will happen and we're just being coy about it"?

Update for clarity: The discussion of whether this is legally fraud or not is beside the point. This question is asking whether the act of requesting a refund can really stop you from being able to use ESTA in the future.

Resolution: They did not attempt to claim the refund.

  • 3
    A "paper" US visa costs $160 to issue, which would cover 10 refunds of $16. If the chance of blacklisting is higher than 10%, it's simply not worth it. – JonathanReez Sep 1 '15 at 10:28
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    Your colleague did authorize the $31 charge when ordering his ESTA, didn't he? A credit card chargeback is for cancelling unauthorized use of a credit card and not ment to be used if you happen to find the same product for a lower price somewhere else later. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Sep 1 '15 at 10:53
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    @Tor-EinarJarnbjo As a business owner, we have gotten chargebacks for the most ridiculous things. Unfortunately, the bank always sides with the customer, even if they clearly received the product they intended to purchase. It's become a cure for buyer's remorse as of late. =( – corsiKa Sep 1 '15 at 17:19
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    @corsiKa Not true! Speaking here as a customer who has been burned by companies who (e.g.) claim to the credit card company that they didn't receive the cancellation before the monthly deadline and have the paperwork to prove you had authorized monthly charges before that. And this for a product that was not used or received during the whole month for a charge the credit card wound up getting the chargeback reversed to 3 months later! – user23030 Sep 1 '15 at 19:26
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    @AaronHall Nothing happened, they did not try to claim the refund. – jpatokal Jan 20 '17 at 0:33
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The official US Government site recommends disputing the amount over $14, (in spite of doing so jeopardizing your future visits):

https://help.cbp.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/1164/kw/esta/p/0/c/0

I've been charged more than $14 for submitting my ESTA application, what should I do?

There are a number of third parties that have established websites that charge a fee for submitting your application on your behalf. If you have used one of these third party sites, we strongly suggest you use your reference number to confirm with the official U.S. government site to ensure that your ESTA is in our system. We recommend you do this because we have no way of knowing if the information passed through the third party website to us is accurate. If it is not, you may have a problem when you arrive in the U.S.

...

CBP cannot refund the money you paid to a third party website, however if you think you have been victimized, contact your bank or credit card company and request a refund of any amount over the $14.00 required by the U.S. government by disputing the add-on charges on your statement.

In standard grey on dark blue text at the bottom of the scammer's front page: "Legal Disclaimer: ESTA.US is a private information website not affiliated with the United States Government." Whether it really creates any value for anyone is questionable, but a sucker is born every minute. The official website is good enough for government work: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta but it looks like a phishing url - the fake site looks even more official/professional.

The US Government site seems to back the idea that these people are being scammed and that these sites create no additional value. I hope he gets his money back by disputing the amount over $14.

How exactly can he prevent the scammer from reacting to the partial chargeback by submitting their own chargeback to the $14 they forwarded to the government? The site says bad things will happen "if the $14.00 charge submitted to the U.S. government is refunded" but provides no information on how to prevent that from happening

I am not a lawyer, but I have some business law training. What I would presume, based on the context, is that the intermediary opens the account pretending to be the individual, which is against the terms of service of the US Government site.

If the intermediary attempts to charge-back to the government, the issue would seem to be between the intermediary and the government, since the applicant has followed the government's advice.

I think it very unlikely that the government, knowing that there exists this bad-faith intermediary, and providing advice, would then penalize an applicant for following its advice. However, see the response below - it appears our short-sighted government bureaucrats would rather you save your $17 and jeopardize your future visits than visit, inject money in our economy, and create jobs.

I have submitted this question to the government's official site. We'll see what they say, after they've had a few weeks to respond.


Here's their email response:

Response Via Email (CBP ESTA Officer) 09/01/2015 02:05 PM Hello,

If the company you used to submit the ESTA cancels the fee with ESTA after you cancel the charge with them this will create a charge back.

If you were charged more than $14 USD per application, you have gone to a third party web site. A third party business charges a fee to submit an ESTA application on your behalf to the official website. These businesses and web sites requesting additional fees are not endorsed by, associated with, or affiliated in any way with Department of Homeland Security or the United States Government. If there is a disclaimer indicating the site is not affiliated to the U. S. government, there is no action the U. S. government can take. The official US Government ESTA web site is: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta

CBP cannot refund the money you paid to a third party website. However if you think you have been victimized, contact your bank or credit card company and request a refund of any amount over the $14.00 required by the U.S. government by disputing the add-on charges on your statement.

However, please keep in mind that any payment stoppage to the ESTA application fee payment transaction with your bank or credit card that may inadvertently result in a withdrawal of the fee for any of your previous ESTA applications - will cause an automatic denial of your current ESTA. The account will then be posted as a "chargeback” and incomplete account. This means that you will NO LONGER be able to re-apply for a new ESTA and all subsequent ESTA applications will be denied.

You can continue to monitor the application up until the date of travel to see if it continues to be approved. If you wish to apply for a new ESTA to feel at ease you can also do this; the decision is completely yours to make and we cannot advise you one way or the other.

To monitor your application use these instructions:

Please go to this site https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/

  1. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the "Retrieve Application" button on the right hand side (Gray box with Black Letters)
  2. Click on the "Retrieve One Application" button on the left hand side (Gray box with Black Letters)
  3. Put your passport number
  4. Put your Birth Date
  5. Put the application number you received in the left side (I know the application number) YOU DO NOT need to fill out the information on the right side if you know the application number - if you do not know the application number then you will have to fill out the information on the right side.
  6. Click on Continue

Respectfully, ESTA PMO

And they have further marked the matter as "solved":

Question Reference #150901-001607
Topic Level 1: ESTA / Visa Waiver
Program Topic Level 2: I am having computer/payment issues.
Date Created: 09/01/2015 11:52 AM
Last Updated: 09/01/2015 02:05 PM
Status: Solved

At the beginning of the email, which I received the same day,

Recently you requested personal assistance from our on-line support center. Below is a summary of your request and our response.

If this issue is not resolved to your satisfaction, you may reopen it within the next 7 days.

Thank you for allowing us to be of service to you.

Perhaps someone else can get further with this bureaucracy than I can, given my limited time.

  • How exactly can he prevent the scammer from reacting to the partial chargeback by submitting their own chargeback to the $14 they forwarded to the government? The site says bad things will happen "if the $14.00 charge submitted to the U.S. government is refunded" but provides no information on how to prevent that from happening. – Random832 Sep 1 '15 at 15:40
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    @Random832 I asked them precisely your question, I expect an answer in the next 2-3 weeks: "Thanks for submitting your question. Use this reference number for follow up: #150901-001607 IMPORTANT! Due to high demand, our average response time for emails has increased to 2-3 business weeks. If you require immediate assistance, or you have an urgent matter, please contact us at 1-877-227-5511 or (202) 325-8000. Thank you!" – Aaron Hall Sep 1 '15 at 15:54
  • @Random832: The scammer probably used another CC so that the real ESTA site could charge their $14. Regardless of what the victims do, the scammer can still do a chargeback of those $14. The scammer doesn't lose a lot because they won't be affected by the ESTA ban. The two chargebacks are effectively independent. – MSalters Sep 1 '15 at 23:35
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    @MSalters - isn't it then incredibly reckless for the Embassy to be recommending that people do something that will make the scammers angry at them, when the scammers have the power to get them blacklisted? – Random832 Sep 2 '15 at 5:10
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    Why does a .gov "look like a phishing URL"? Most federal URLs that I've seen were similar to that one (e.g. subagency.parentagency.gov). The problem is that a lot of people outside the U.S. probably don't realize that the U.S. government uses .gov rather than .us (like many other countries do.) Almost any legitimate U.S. government website will have .gov as the TLD and I don't think I've ever heard of a phishing site using one. About the only way to pull that off would be to compromise an existing government server to host the phishing page. You can't just get a .gov address for your server. – reirab Sep 2 '15 at 16:34
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He'd like to dispute the credit card charge, get his money back and try again via the official site

Card disputes are for unauthorized fraudulent charges not purchases. If your friend authorized the purchase and further received the goods I don't see any standing on which he could dispute the charge.

Your friend's situation is the same as someone who bought something at a local store for $X, and then found it cheaper online and now wants to get the money back, so they can buy it for a cheaper price.

I would not risk possible consequences over $17 and instead chalk this up to an experience and move on; especially considering that you risk losing your dispute claim and then are flagged for that.

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    I disagree about the usage of the word "victims", he willingly chose that site over the official one. So, how come he is a victim? – Nean Der Thal Sep 1 '15 at 11:52
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    If a site that isn't an official government website pretends to be an official government website, then this is fraud to me. @NeanDerThal: He didn't choose it knowingly, and therefore not willingly, over the government website, because it pretends to be the government website. – gnasher729 Sep 1 '15 at 12:09
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    It's not misrepresenting. It says so at the bottom, and it doesn't look like the official site. The US Government should provide www.esta.gov, though! – Andrew Leach Sep 1 '15 at 12:35
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    @AndrewLeach If you haven't seen the official site, how are you supposed to know this doesn't look like it? And the small print is very small and gray. – jpatokal Sep 1 '15 at 12:54
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    @NeanDerThal The offered service (submitting your ESTA paperwork for you) is not one the US government actually allows businesses to do (the terms of service for the website require that submitted information be your own only). Thus, the website cannot legally perform the work they claimed to perform (even if you read the fine print), and have fraudulently indicated that they could (even if you read the fine print). So yes, "victim" is entirely appropriate even if you believe that consumers are 100% responsible for reading all fine print no matter how hidden. – KRyan Sep 1 '15 at 20:31

protected by Community Dec 12 '17 at 9:27

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