/ Travel & Leisure

Scam watch: Esta renewal copycat website

Scamwatch esta

One Which? member was savvy enough to realise that a website he’d clicked on to renew his Esta document to travel to the US wasn’t official.

Member Michael Turney told us:

‘I regularly fly to the United States and recently received an email advising that my Esta travel document was up for renewal. I know that a two-year document costs $14 (£11).

‘I typed ‘Esta renewal’ into a search engine, and the first website on the results page looked very official.

‘While filling in my details, I became aware that the website was requesting answers that it should already have had on file.

‘It wasn’t until I clicked ‘complete transaction’ that I realised it was a scam. My card had been charged £64.

‘I immediately emailed the website owners to advise that I was notifying the US Embassy and the police that I had been scammed. Within a minute, they told me that the transaction had been voided and no money had been taken.

‘I cancelled my card to prevent them using it again.’

Our say on copycat websites

We’ve seen numerous examples of copycat websites in search engine adverts fooling people into paying more than they need to for visas, driving licence renewals and Ehic cards, among other documents.

We’ve successfully campaigned in the past for search engines to do more to stop these websites from appearing in their results pages, but we want more enforcement action.

Google has set up an online form to let you report misleading adverts. We’d also recommend reporting the website you used to National Trading Standards.

Have you been caught out by a copycat website when applying for visas, a driving licence or similar? What happened?


I hope Which? reported the at least a dozen websites that come up on Google when searching ‘renew esta’?

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I’m still shocked that people don’t use gov.uk to find the correct links for these official things. There definitely is a requirement to educate people.

I agree William. The expansion of use of the internet for access to all kinds of services has not been accompanied by an education programme to protect people from their eagerness [or lack of practical alternative] to do it on-line. I believe the government should take out advertising for GOV.UK to show people how to obtain free government services such as EHIC, Passport applications, Driving Licence applications, Driving Test appointments, and so on, and also other application facilities provided by foreign governments such as ESTA. Could it be that the VAT received from all the charging sites for ‘processing’ people’s applications is inhibiting the government from rendering them redundant?

I use GovUk daily as part of my job. However, when googling apply for toad tax, the top ‘hit’ was an ad ( which it turned out was for a copycat site.). I inputted all my info and then later realised that I had been asked for information that they should know e.g. MOT expiry. The site had charged a fee for the transaction. I immediately emailed and notified them that I was reporting them on the basis that they were copying an official government site. My payment was refunded. I contacted Gov.uk and the DVLA with screenshots of the site which were uncannily similar to the official one, and both responded to say ‘use only the weblink on your renewal notice to be safe’. No concern about the site at all.
I blame google they are letting people advertise falsely because they pay.
So, yes we do ‘need’ more information about scams’ to be included with renewal information, but we don’t all ‘need’ educating per se.

A quick google here found uk.usembassy.gov/visas/visa-waiver-program/ “This is the official website of the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in The United Kingdom. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.”

but that was the 3rd hit.

2nd hit was www esta us/ which looked fairly official but in very small print right at the bottom said “Legal Disclaimer: ESTA.US is a private information website not affiliated with the United States Government.”

1st up was www esta-registration co uk/ which included “this is a non government service…”

Savvy users ought to know by know that the first few hits on google are advertisements – hence they are unlikely to be official government sites.

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Firstly I wish Which? would
1. Use the actual site name and the company

2. ” We’ve successfully campaigned in the past for search engines to do more to stop these websites from appearing in their results pages” Really. The success would seem partial or momentary.
Can Which? post the details of their exchanges with the search engines and the undertakings they agreed to.

3. I have suggested for three years that Which? should, as a service to subscribers, both in making life simpler and in making it safer , be the default place to go for safe links to the right sites. As we age the knowledge that if we boot to Which? and then put in the name of the interest we have – in this instance ESTA – then we will be steered the right way.

An everyday service worth paying for by our subscriptions. I would call it CAwiki as a nod to the owning charity.

I would heartily endorse Patrick’s idea of W? hosting a page or pages of ‘safe links’. We did do something similar in 1998, but to have one officially run would be excellent.

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Github is useful indeed, and you can also install Privacy Badger, Better Privacy, Google link search fix and HTTPS everywhere on Firefox, all of which makes browsing a whole lot safer in general.

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I think your issue has only affected MS and Linux machines, Duncan. It doesn’t seem to have troubles the Mac’s.

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