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As pandemic travel restrictions eased in the summer of 2021, a flood of travelers renewing or applying for passports overwhelmed the State Department's application process. By July 2021, wait times had reached 18 weeks, and even expedited services took 12 weeks.
Spotting opportunity, scammers have started preying on desperate travelers. Scammers lure victims with promises to speed up the process, but they ultimately just steal money or identities. According to identity verification company Onfido, passports have surpassed national ID cards as the most frequently forged identity document. To protect yourself from passport scams, be leery of calls, texts or emails that appear to come from a government agency, and avoid sharing personal information with anyone who contacts you this way. Here's what you need to know.
What Are Passport Scams?
Passport applications require you to submit sensitive personal information, such as your Social Security number and proof of citizenship documentation (often a birth certificate). Thieves who get hold of this information have everything they need to commit identity theft. They can use it to open new credit accounts under your name, take out loans, drain your bank accounts, steal your tax refund or use your health insurance. Identity thieves may also sell your information to other criminals on the dark web.
Even if you haven't applied for a passport recently, you could be targeted by scammers. Here are the most common passport scams to watch for.
- Impersonating an officer: In San Antonio, Texas, criminals have been calling people using spoofing technology so it appears the calls come from the local Homeland Security Investigation office. The callers pose as special agents and tell people their passport has been involved in a crime and the police are coming to arrest them. They then use threats to acquire personal data such as Social Security numbers, banking information or credit card numbers.
- Posing as a passport expeditor: Scammers create fraudulent websites, online ads, social media posts and emails offering to hurry your passport along … for a price. They charge you for expedited service, and then never deliver.
- Selling urgent appointments: If you need to travel internationally within five to seven weeks, the State Department offers limited "urgent travel" appointments to expedite your passport. Up until last year, you were able to make appointments online, but when scammers began using bots to snap up appointments and resell them, the State Department had to shut down its online appointment option.
How to Avoid Passport Scams
Scammers can be sneaky. Here are some tips for how to steer clear of passport fraud.
- Never pay to book an appointment at a passport agency or center. The State Department doesn't charge for booking appointments and doesn't work with third-party booking agencies. Assume any outside party offering to book an appointment for you is a scam.
- Never pay to fill out passport forms. Some companies charge a fee for this, but they are not affiliated with the State Department. You can download forms for free at the State Department website.
- Don't apply for a passport online. Although you can download passport forms to complete online, you can't apply for or renew a passport online. Passport applications must be printed, signed and submitted to the State Department with original documents.
- Ignore unsolicited calls, emails or texts claiming to come from a government agency. Spoofing and phishing scams designed to trick you into sharing personal information have become highly sophisticated. Government agencies will not contact you via phone, text or email, and will instead do so by mail.
- Don't pay passport fees with Bitcoin or wire transfers. The State Department does not accept these forms of payment. Any company requesting Bitcoin or wire transfers is most likely fraudulent.
- Never provide financial or banking information. Neither your passport application or renewal application requires this information; anyone who asks for it is scamming you.
- Don't use couriers or passport expeditor services. Some private courier companies or passport expeditors are authorized by the State Department to submit passport applications for customers. But there are also many unauthorized scam companies. Even legitimate expeditors cannot get your passport any faster than you would get it by applying in person at a passport center or agency. Sometimes you'll have to appear in person even if you use a courier service. At best, these services cost you extra money; at worst, they're scams.
The State Department has also authorized many post offices, clerks of court, public libraries and other government offices to accept passport applications. These passport application acceptance facilities may or may not require appointments; contact them to find out. The State Department also holds passport fairs for first-time passport applicants; check to see if there are any passport fairs happening near you.
The passport backlog has eased a bit since last summer. The State Department now says routine processing takes eight to 11 weeks. Expedited processing (which costs an additional $60) takes five to seven weeks. Still, the State Department advises applying for a passport at least four to six months before planned travel.
How to Protect Your Identity While Traveling
Once you have your passport in hand, take these precautions to protect your identity on the road.
- Travel light. Instead of a wallet stuffed with IDs and credit cards, bring only the essentials, like your passport and a few credit cards.
- Keep your passport in the hotel safe unless you'll need it that day. Store a copy of your passport, credit cards and any other identification in the safe as well.
- Provide a heads-up to the financial institutions you use. Alert your credit card companies and bank or credit union of travel plans so they don't flag overseas purchases as suspicious activity.
- Don't use public Wi-Fi or public computers. If you must, don't shop or bank online or share any personal information.
If you think you've been tricked by a passport scam, report it by emailing PassportVisaFraud@state.gov.
Play It Safe
Abroad or at home, checking your credit report regularly can help you spot identity theft. Suspicious activity or accounts you don't recognize could indicate your identity has been stolen. Get additional peace of mind with an identity monitoring service. Experian IdentityWorksSM provides identity theft and credit monitoring alerts and lets you know if your personal information is found on the dark web so you can take steps to make sure it isn't misused.