Hong Kong’s consumer watchdog on Monday warned residents against websites that posed as official government sites and overcharged people seeking online arrival visas for international travel.
The Consumer Council said it had received 30 complaints since 2016 from Hongkongers who were misled by websites promising the short-stay visas, also know as an electronic travel authorisation (ETA), which appeared almost identical to government sites.
The non-official sites charged exorbitant fees, according to the council, while some refused to refund consumers for failed applications.
ETAs allow Hong Kong passport holders to enter countries such as Canada and Australia for short-term stays without an official visa, but travellers must apply online before arrival.
In one of the complaints, a woman surnamed Cheung went online to apply for an ETA before her visit to Australia. She mistook a website that displayed the Australian national flag – and used the terms “immi” and “ETA” – as the official site for Australia’s immigration department. She paid US$100 (HK$783) for the ETA application, well above the normal fee of A$20 (US$13.75).
Some people choose these sites because of Google search rankings
Gilly Wong, chief executive of the Consumer Council
Cheung later found a notice in fine print at the bottom of the website saying it was run by a private company. She believed the website deliberately copied the official Australian site because there was no clear disclosure of the company background or other important information.
“Consumers need to be very cautious about these websites,” said Gilly Wong Fung-han, the council’s chief executive. “Some people choose these sites because of Google search rankings. But they don’t necessarily reflect the reputation and credibility of the website.”
Wong urged consumers to use official channels for ETA applications and the required fees.
A complainant surnamed Leung, who is a British National Overseas (BNO) passport holder, failed to get an Australian ETA on a private website after paying a US$64 fee, about five times the official rate. Leung was told his application was unsuccessful and his request for a refund from the site was rejected.
The Australian consulate said BNO passport holders could apply for an ETA through Hong Kong travel agents and airlines rather than online.
Wong also noted that all the websites mentioned in the complaints were overseas, which made it hard for the council to look into them.
“Consumers can avoid falling into these traps if they choose carefully,” she said.
One consumer discovered that an agent she used to apply for a Canadian ETA was based in Singapore.
The unnamed complainant and her husband picked the agent based on the rankings of an online search. She paid HK$500 (US$64) per person but later found out the official fee was only HK$40.72 (US$5.20). The complainant wanted to cancel the transaction and seek a refund, but the company said the service had been provided.