Passport delays cause travel woes for some, while others attempt to cheat the system

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PLAINFIELD, Ind. – If you’re traveling out of the country, officials say you should plan for delayed service times if you are in need of getting a new passport.

Pre-pandemic, the average wait once a passport application was mailed was anywhere from six to eight weeks. That number has more than doubled and it’s something Danisa Lewis and her family, of Plainfield, wish they knew when applying for passports back in April.

“We were told at the post office, ‘no need to pay to expedite your passports, they’ll get there on time,'” said Lewis. Now, just days away from their trip, the Lewis family is still empty-handed.

According to the United States Postal Service (USPS) in a mid-June update, people who apply for routine service may wait up to 18 weeks from the day an application is submitted to the day a new passport is received. That time frame includes up to 12 weeks for processing and up to 6 weeks for mailing.

If you’re planning to pay for expedited service for an extra $60, USPS says you may wait up to 12 weeks from the day you submit your application until a new passport is received. This service includes up to six weeks for processing and six weeks for mailing.

A Department of State Official told FOX59, although a team of passport professionals has returned to their facilities, they have generally restricted appointments at the Dept. of State public passport agencies to cases involving life or death emergencies and also offering very limited appointments for non-essential travel within 72 hours.

“Our trip is scheduled for July 13. You cannot go for an appointment any sooner than 72 hours before your trip is scheduled,” said Lewis.

Her family is heading to Mexico as part of a postponed trip to celebrate their daughter’s accomplishments and high school graduation.

“She graduated in 2020 and so we’re just trying to get her 2020 behind her. We’re trying to get some closure for her high school year still,” said Lewis.

Jason Schultz, who lived in Greenwood for 15 years and recently moved to Terre Haute, said he was so focused on helping to plan a wedding he is officiating, also in Mexico, that he didn’t realize his passport had recently expired. That was in early June and the wedding is in mid-July.

In addition to officiating the wedding, Schultz and his wife are also celebrating their postponed honeymoon, which has been delayed due to the pandemic.

Quite opposite of the Lewis family, who says they were told there was no need to pay for expedited service, Schultz said he was told not to send his passport information, at all. Instead, he was told to hang on to his passport and make an appointment at a passport agency location within 72 hours of his trip to get his passport.

Those appointments can only be booked two weeks in advance, so they are difficult to come by with already-limited slots. After days of trying to call the number and never getting through, Schultz said he was internally battling whether or not to just send his passport application and hope for the best.

He did that, paid more than $180 for expedited service, including 1-2 day delivery, and then continued to research how he could get an appointment to ensure he has a passport in hand when he makes his way out of the country on July 14.

Like Lewis, Schultz headed over to Facebook to see if others were finding themselves in the same predicament and how they were handling it.

“It’s pretty desperate out there from what I’ve seen on some Facebook pages that I’ve recently joined because of this,” said Lewis. “You just start searching for answers and you come up with these groups.”

She shared that she has seen stories of people trying to get to another country to visit family, others trying to get their children to see grandparents or other family members, as well as people saying that they will be attending weddings or funerals.

Although some of these Facebook groups and pages indicate they were created with the intent to help ‘pay it forward’ and assist with information related to booking passport appointments, not everyone in the groups has been trying to pay it forward — for free that is.

“They’re selling multiple appointments to people for thousands and thousands of dollars on a website that’s supposed to be helping each other. It’s disgusting,” said Schultz. “They’re PM’ing them, sending messages to each other and selling them for big money.”

“People are hoarding these things and it’s becoming worth more than money,” said Schultz, noting that in several cases, people say “they have” several appointments available.

In certain circumstances, people have offered to transfer their appointment to others for a charge, many claiming they also paid that fee to someone else to obtain the appointment in the first place. Some are even charging for their “services” to find those having difficulty, an appointment.

That’s how Lewis managed to book an appointment in Detroit, now scheduled for the day before their flight departs from Indianapolis.

“We have actually paid someone to “research” an appointment for us and get the appointment,” said Lewis, noting that the man charged her $300 and when she received the confirmation email, the phone number on it, wasn’t hers.

“I felt like if I paid for it, it was going to happen, even though I don’t know this guy I paid the money to,” she said. “He had great references and people were like, ‘he’s the real deal, he’s gonna make this happen for you.’”

She said after investing money in her trip, the passports they paid for, and countless time trying to get through to the passport agency, she felt there was no other way to get an appointment herself.

Keep in mind, the Dept. of State will never charge passport applicants solely for booking an emergency appointment at one of its agencies or centers.

Lewis said she has been able to confirm the appointment is legitimate, but until their passports are in hand, they’ll be holding their breath in hopes they won’t need to cancel their vacation.

Schultz was also able to, with the help of other family members calling in unison, book an appointment at the agency in Detroit. He hopes his passport will be in his mailbox in time, but in case it isn’t, he’s prepared to do what’s needed to get it.

FOX59 wanted to know how easy it was to get a quote from someone claiming to help book these appointments, so reporter Courtney Spinelli reached out to an individual who was allegedly trying to charge people for helping them.

In a Facebook message, the user wrote that it would cost between $250 to $300, depending on how long a person waits to take the appointment, which ‘is guaranteed.’ The user said, “you will be given the full churrasco, confirmation, phone number, and pin,” noting that any special requests would need to be shared so they can work to get that done.

A Dept. of State Official released a statement to FOX59 following our inquiries into the online activity by people involved in transactions surrounding passport appointments.

We are aware of these issues and are working to prevent the manipulation of our appointment system to take advantage of passport applicants.  We remind all passport applicants that the Department of State does not charge a fee solely for booking an emergency appointment at one of our agencies or centers.

Further, the Department is not affiliated with any third party appointment booking services, and we have seen numerous instances of falsified appointment bookings through these vendors.  We may not be able to honor appointments booked via third parties.

Department of State Official

FOX59 also spoke with Scott Barnhart, chief counsel and director of the Consumer Protection Division of the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, who said, “We’re in the process of looking into that right now and kind of looking at what the scope of those complaints are.”

Barnhart shared that scammers are opportunists and will look to see what the current trends are at the moment.

“The trend right now is to get out of the house, go on vacation, and to try to take advantage of folks that are in a time crunch and the circumstances,” said Barnhart. “In terms of that, we’re still looking to see what the scope is on our end in terms of the thousands of calls and complaints that we get.”

From a consumer protection standpoint, Barnhart added that these are things people need to be on the lookout for and it is always a good idea to slow down, take your time to do some research, and if traveling, get things like passport applications done as early as possible.

“Scammers take advantage of fear, they take advantage of pressure from a consumer standpoint,” he said. “This is an unprecedented time and there is a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear out there and so they try to do their best to capitalize on that and they try to catch people so that they’re giving either their identity or they’re giving their money.”

When asked whether selling passport appointments or services to book them, when they are otherwise free, is illegal, Barnhart said he looks to the Deceptive Consumer Sales Act to determine two things: whether it is abusive, and if it is unlawful.

The evidence in each individual circumstance determines whether it is abusive and unlawful, said Barnhart.

“The fraudulent piece is pretty straightforward, are they lying to you? Are they trying to deceive you?”

“The unfair piece and the abusive piece is a little bit more nuanced in terms of what the law dictates in terms of whether it’s lawful or unlawful,” he said, comparing this situation to something like the ticket model in secondary ticket selling and upselling.

“It would depend on the facts and circumstances as to whether it is fraudulent, unfair, or abusive,” he said.

His biggest piece of advice for people is: do your research and be aware it is likely a red flag when you are asked to pay upfront for services or goods with cash, a gift card, or other transactions like wire transfers.

Barnhart rhetorically asked, “You wouldn’t pay for a gallon of milk without receiving the gallon of milk, right?”

He encourages people to plan in advance, which officials are suggesting is at least six months right now, to avoid running into trouble.

FOX59 has also learned that in the pursuit of getting answers, many people awaiting their passports have turned to state legislators for help. Congressman Andre Carson and Senator Todd Young’s offices have confirmed that they are seeing an increase in Hoosiers reaching out for help on this matter.

Rep. Carson released a statement to FOX59 on Wednesday.

“Yes, my office has seen an increase in passport-related requests. I encourage Hoosiers to be wary of potential passport application scams, especially right now, when so many people are planning international travel. As a rule of thumb, you should be suspicious of any unofficial entity that claims to have the authority to act as a liaison between you and a government agency. Instead, you should contact the Passport Agency directly. Currently, the State Department is urging people to apply for or renew a passport at least six months before planned travel. For assistance with this, constituents may contact my Indianapolis office, and we will work closely with the State Department to get your passport as soon as possible.”

Representative Andre Carson, (D) Indiana

If you are in need of applying for a new passport or looking for information on how to apply, the Department of State said you can go to most acceptance facilities, including post offices, clerks of court, and public libraries.

The agency recommends eligible adults renew their passports by mail “because it is a safe, contactless operation for certain services.”

To learn more on how to apply and what you need to know, you can visit the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs’ website on passport forms.

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