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Feds Shut Down Passport Application System to Stop Scammers

A group of scammers used bots to accumulate and resell passport application appointments from the U.S. Department of State, which was forced to take its appointment system offline.

U.S. passport
(TNS) — On Wednesday evening, the U.S. Department of State shut down its online appointment system for passport applicants citing scammers who had been grabbing appointments in order to sell them to desperate would-be travelers for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars.

The scammers, who were targeting those with an urgent and life-or-death need to travel internationally, used bots to scoop up bookings at the State Department's passport agencies, making it nearly impossible for others to get appointments. They would then join online forums, such as the "US Passports and Visas" Facebook group, and offer these appointments — a free government service — for a fee, as SFGATE first reported on Wednesday.

On Wednesday evening, the State Department shut down the passport agency's online booking system entirely. "We are making this change to address the problem of third parties booking appointments online using automated programs, or bots, and then selling these appointments to customers with urgent travel needs," read a note on the department's web page.

The change is described as temporary and to "ensure our very limited appointments go to applicants who need them for urgent travel."

As of Thursday morning, the only way for those with an urgent need for a passport appointment is to use the agency's national application hotline. But multiple calls to that 877 number return a busy signal with no option to hold or to speak to a representative. For those desperate to travel overseas for the birth of a child or to visit a dying relative, for instance, that means there is currently no reliable way for them to get help from the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which oversees passports and visas.

In a statement shared with SFGATE, a State Department official did not acknowledge that the hotline is currently having technical difficulties that make it very difficult to get through. The official did note that wait times can exceed one hour and that the majority of callers are inquiring about the status of their applications, which can be found online.

The State Department said it first uncovered evidence of the scams in June. The department did not answer questions about how long the online booking system will be down, when it first became aware of scammers booking appointments or if it has any plans to ameliorate the situation.

The department has been under fire in recent months due to the separate but related issue of tremendously long processing times for passport applications. As has been widely reported, it now takes up to 18 weeks for "routine" passports to be returned and up to three months for the more expensive expedited service. That backlog, which is blamed on staffing shortages, is likely responsible for the large number of callers overwhelming the passport services hotline, making it nearly impossible for those with an urgent need for a passport to get through. There are now some two million U.S. citizens waiting to receive their passports.

Those without an "urgent" need to travel — meaning they have a flight within 72 hours and don't have a valid passport — can mail their passport renewal application or make an appointment for an in-person appointment at a local "passport acceptance facility," which includes places like post offices and city clerk's offices. But for applicants who require an in-person appointment in order to get a new passport or renew a minor's passport, for example, the issue has been finding a way to apply in the first place.

In recent months would-be applicants have had increasing difficulty getting an appointment for both routine applications and for those urgent situations that require the help of regional passport agency locations, like the one in San Francisco that serves the Northern California region. Those physical passport agency offices are often able to return a passport the same day for those with a documented urgent need.

Appointments have become so hard to get that entire online communities have formed to help each other navigate the application process. Among the tips exchanged on these forums was the ability to give another applicant an appointment you no longer need. Initially, this sharing of appointments seems to have been happening as a goodwill gesture between desperate passport applicants. But it seems to have been seized upon by scammers, who began making these free appointments for a public service with the intention of selling them.

The Wednesday evening changes to the application system are intended to stop that exploitative practice by both requiring appointments to be made by phone and by no longer allowing appointments to be transferred from one customer to another. Appointments that were made before the changes went into effect at 10 p.m. on July 21 will still be honored, but it is unclear how and when travelers with a life-or-death need can reasonably expect to get an appointment.

Lawmakers have expressed concern with the State Department's handling of the passport backlog. Reps. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Tim Burchett of Tennessee introduced a bipartisan bill titled the "The Passport Backlog Elimination Act" that would require the State Department to submit a plan within 30 days that would ensure a processing time of six to eight weeks for normal applications and two to three weeks for expedited applications.

In addition, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs to provide a description of its strategy to counter the backlog.

"Current wait times — up to 18 weeks for routine service and 12 for expedited service — well exceed pre-pandemic levels, and they are untenable for Americans seeking to resume international travel and reconnect with friends and loved ones abroad," Murphy wrote.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. July 22 to clarify language in the headline about the cause of the shutdown.

©2021 SFGate, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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