Hong Kong’s consumer watchdog has warned the public about third-party websites that offer online visa services for international travel, pointing to issues such as overcharging and shoddy work or even fraud.
The Consumer Council said on Monday that it has received a number of complaints in recent years about websites that pretend to be the official ones of foreign governments.
The websites are often designed to look like the official ones, aiming to fool visa seekers into lodging applications through the sites.
Among other issues, the third-party sites charge much higher fees, compared to the regular visa processing fee levied by foreign embassies and consulates.
Also, there is no guarantee that the applications would be processed in a timely manner or go through.
In case an application fails, the websites do not offer refund to the customer, the watchdog said, offering an advisory to citizens who apply for electronic travel authorization (ETA) online before they visit countries such as Australia or Canada.
Since the third-party websites usually rank higher in the search engine than the official websites, it is easy for consumers to think that they are the real ones.
Giving an example of the problems faced by consumers, the Council mentioned the case of a Hong Kong woman surnamed Cheung who wanted to travel to Australia.
Two weeks before she was to make the trip, the lady realized that she had to apply for the ETA, prompting her to do an internet search. The search showed up an official-looking website with a national flag on the landing page.
Thinking that it was a government site, Cheung filed her application and made the payment.
Later, she found out that she had gone through a non-official site, and that she was charged five times more than the official fee levied by the Australian government.
Warning about the potential issues, the Consumer Council advised citizens to check with the consulates of respective countries in Hong Kong before making any travel arrangements.
Travelers can also visit the website of the protocol division of the Hong Kong government secretariat for information on overseas travel procedures to avoid loss of money and time.