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ESTA copycat site charging £65 fee reprimanded by advertising watchdog

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Written by: Paloma Kubiak
22/06/2016
A copycat website charging people travelling to the US £65 to submit a $14 ESTA on their behalf has breached advertising codes, a watchdog has said.

Advertising by Application Advice Service UK Ltd was found to be misleading and in breach of the UK advertising code for not making clear on its site that it was not the official website for US ESTA visa waiver applications.

Anyone travelling to the US under the Visa Waiver Program must apply online for an ESTA which costs $14 through the official US government website.

But the esta-form.co.uk website gave visitors the option for it to submit an ESTA application on their behalf in return for a £64.95 fee, including the $14 for the US border control.

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which comes under the ASA, scrutinises the advertising of official services or documents on “copycat” websites that aren’t part of official government channels.

As part of advertising requirements, websites offering official services for a fee must make it clear to customers they are unofficial bodies and must include a “prominent disclaimer”.

This should make clear to users the nature of the service offered, as well as the additional cost of using that service compared with going direct to the official site.

The ASA ruling stated that although there was a disclaimer on the website, it was in grey text in the footer of the page and “far removed” from the prominent ‘next step’, ‘apply for ESTA now’ and ‘apply online now’ action buttons in the body of the website.

The CAP said: “In the absence of a disclaimer alongside the calls to action, the esta-form.co.uk website breaches the CAP Code.”

At the time of writing, Application Advice Service UK Ltd had yet to amend the site to comply with the code.

As a result of its non-compliance, the ASA has taken the decision to place the company details on the name and shame section of its website until it “has appropriately amended the claims on its website to ensure compliance with the CAP Code.”

Top tips to ensure you visit official service sites

If you want to use only official services, here are three things to look our for, according to the ASA:

  • Look for ‘.GOV’ in the web address. All government services can be accessed at https://www.gov.uk/. Take time to read the information on the website carefully to check it’s the official service.
  • If you’re unsure about the claims a company is making then you can get in touch with the ASA.
  • Remember, using the official service may still incur a charge.

UPDATE: Since publication of this article, the ASA has confirmed that Application Advice Service UK Ltd has now agreed to make amendments to its website. As such the ASA has removed it from the ‘name and shame’ section of its site.

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