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09 June 2010

US Visa Application Scam

When it comes to scams there are some people or companies you you expect to be scammed by but a government run organisation you might not trust but you wouldn't expect them to run a scam.  Well, the US embassy certainly seems to be doing just that right now with it's new visa application system.

I don't think it started out with the intention of being a scam but, as it has been going on for quite a while now and they know people are losing loads of money in their system and they have not done anything about it, it clearly is now a scam.

If you want to enter the country or transit it and you don't qualify for the visa waiver program you have to get a visa.  Fair enough so far.  We are (were) to be going to Miami on 30th of this month to meet a friend who has his own twin engine aircraft.  The next day we were going with him to the Caribbean and then on to Brazil. Our return to the UK would be via a commercial flight out of Rio.  As we were not returning to the UK from the US we apparently require a visa.  To get a visa you have to fill out an application form on-line and send it off to them.  There is a really cheesy YouTube video trying to sell the idea of how easy the new system is on the Embassy web site.  We did that about 6 weeks ago as soon as we had had the holiday confirmed.  We waited for a week and didn't hear anything so I checked the Embassy web site again and discovered you have to phone the Embassy to book an appointment.  The phone number you HAVE to use is a premium rate number and by premium I'm talking £1.20 per minute!  I rang it as soon as I realised but first I wanted to confirm we would definitely require a visa.  I was put on hold for over 6 minutes while they discussed the matter and the guy I was speaking to finally confirmed I would.  He then said I'd have to ring back on this number to book an appointment.  I asked him if he could put me through but he told me that there were no appointments and none would be available for booking until after the 7th June.  I informed him we were hoping to fly on the 30th and asked if he could check and see if there would be an opportunity to book anything in time or if all the dates up till then were already booked.  He said he couldn't check that and I'd just have to ring back.  That was the end of that call, 10 minutes.

Another friend who was also joining the trip said he had managed to get a visa by going to the Belfast Embassy. So I phoned the premium rate visa line number again and asked about getting an appointment there instead.  I was told that both the Belfast and London Embassy appointments are dealt with by the same department and neither had any appointments available.  This time I was told the try again after the 4th June.  That was a 5 minute call.

On the 4th June I rang at 9am.  I got the initial recording warning me how much the call was costing and then the options to press for booking a visa appointment (Optio 1).  I pressed option 1 and got another recorded message saying "We are currently experiencing very high call volumes at the moment and cannot answer your call. Please ring back later" and the line is cut off.  At least £1.20 wasted.  I rang again an hour later - ditto.  I rang the Embassy switchboard and the spoke to a receptionist who just told me that as they had changed the system and the lines had only just reopened they were getting a very large number of calls and I should just try again later.  She said it would be quieter between 4 & 5.  She would not give me any idea as to the likely hood of getting an appointment in time for our trip.  I rang the appointment line at lunchtime, at 4.59 and just before the lines closed at 8.30pm but still the same result. 

Oh, and between the lines closing for appointments and them reopening the cost of each individual visa appointment has gone up from $131 to $140.  This is non refundable and has to be paid up front once you get through for each visa applied for. 

Saturday 5th - lines opened at 9 and I rang on the dot.  Same result.  I phoned 3 more times that day up to 4 when they closed and no change.  Each time this is costing at least £1.20.  Sunday they are not open.  Monday 7th, lines opened at 8 and I rang at 8 to the second. I was a fraction too quick and the lines were still closed.  I rang straight back and got the 'We are currently too busy' message again.  5 minutes later I tried again.  I rang the switchboard again and this time spoke with a very sympathetic lady who understood my problem and said she would put in a report as there were a number of people in my situation and it wasn't good enough.  She also thought it was unlikely that if I did get through that there would be an appointment available in time. I asked if it would be possible to go to the Embassy in person to book the appointment but she told me that phoning that premium rate number was the ONLY way to book an appointment, nothing else would be acceptable.I tried appointments line again that lunchtime, at 4.30, 6.15 and 8.45 but no change.

Tuesday 8th.  Once again I rang dead on 8am, same result.  I rang at lunchtime and now there is an additional recorded message straight after the first one warning of the cost that states that due to 'Unprecedented call volumes waiting times to speak with an agent were between 8 and 10 minutes1. OK I thought, it'll cost me £12 but at least I'll get an answer and hopefully an appointment.  The next recorded message comes on for the options to press and I select 1 thinking I'll be on hold for a while but should get answered.  No, the same old recorded message came on saying how they cannot take your call and please ring back later!  I rang again that evening but it was just the same. 

Today, Wednesday 9th.  I ring again at 8am on the dot and get the same message complete with the extra bit and still don't get through.  I have tried 3 more times since then.  I left a message on their blog but it got scrubbed, no surprises there.  If I could be told there was no hope of getting an appointment in time for our trip at least I could stop calling and try and salvage what we can of our holiday.  We will lose all the money we paid for our flights as they are non refundable.

The Embassy must be creaming in the money on this phone line as I am clearly not the only one desperate to get through.  Each time someone calls it is at least £1.20 which is more than a lottery ticket and for me at least, I would have more of a chance if I did do the lottery than I have of getting a visa appointment.  I don't gamble and I don't normally ring premium number ever.  If it was a first come first serve system it would be fairer but the chances of getting through are just based purely on luck.  What are they doing with all the money they are making on this scam?  I'm sure it's just going to the Embassy coffers.  I wouldn't mind so much if it was donated back to the British people to help pay of some of our huge debt seeing as it is Brits they have conned the money from but I think that is extremely unlikely.

Thursday - same old story. 
I finally got through this afternoon as they changed the system to allow people to queue.  Unfortunately the earliest appointment they could offer was next Wednesday 16th but the processing time for the visa should my interview be successful is currently 5 - 10 working days and we only have nine.  The risk that our passports and visas might not arrive in time for our flights on the 30th is too much of a risk and too much worry.  Better to cut our losses now and try and work on a fall back holiday than spend the next couple of weeks stressing about it and find we have nothing at the end.

This is one experience I am not gong to be able to forget.