The U.S. Department of State shut down its online appointment system for passport applicants on Wednesday (July 21) after scammers reportedly booked appointment slots and sold them for extremely high asking prices.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports scammers charged would-be travelers "hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars," targeting individuals with "an urgent and life-or-death need to travel internationally," by using bots to acquire bookings at the Department's passport agencies, prohibiting others in need of getting appointments.
The scammers then joined online forums -- including the "US Passports and Visas" Facebook group -- in an effort to reach their target audience and offer the appointments for large fees, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Wednesday.
The State Department shut down the online passport booking system amid and issued the following statement on their web page via the San Francisco Chronicle: “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."
The department said the temporary shutdown was implemented in an effort to “ensure our very limited appointments go to applicants who need them for urgent travel.”
U.S. residents with an urgent need to book a passport appointment were able to do so through the agency's national application hotline as of Thursday (July 22) morning, however, numerous calls to the 877 number returned a busy signal without providing an option to hold or speak to a representative, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
A State Department official responded to the San Francisco Chronicle's request for comment on the hotline without acknowledging any current technical difficulties, but instead noting extensive wait times exceeding one hour and most callers inquiring about the status of applications previously filed online.