How I was (almost) scammed by a government look-alike website in the Dominican Republic
Last week on my way to the Dominican Republic (DR), I was scammed out of $79. In the minutes before my flight, I was frantically calling the fraud department at my bank, which oddly doesn't open until 9 am EST (scammers don't sleep, but your bank does) while trying to make sure the scammers wouldn't take any more money out of my account.
"I searched for the website on Google again and realized that there were, in fact, two websites -- one that looked very similar to the legitimate government website."
My trip to the DR was the most unprepared I've ever been for a vacation. I threw clothes into my suitcase the night before the flight and only checked to confirm that I had my toothbrush, deodorant, and body wash packed. For all other items - makeup, jewelry, hair supplies -- I simply grabbed the unpacked packing cubes from my trip to Curacao a few weeks prior and threw them into my DR suitcase.
I woke up at 2 am the morning of my flight and didn't go back to sleep. By the time I arrived at the check-in counter, I was running purely on adrenaline. The extent of my unpreparedness was further exposed when the agent at the ticket counter asked for my migration QR code.
I paused and stared at her blankly, realizing that my lack of planning was catching up to me. I had also failed to fill out the online entry code. An entry form, or some type of entry documentation, is used by virtually every country post-covid and is required before entering most countries. I couldn't believe I had forgotten to register for my trip.
The agent at the ticket counter told me I needed to have it before I boarded the flight.
She verbally shared the name of the website, "It's 'migracion.gob.do,' and migracion is spelled similarly to how you say it in Spanish."
After I finished checking my bags with her, I went to the security line, where I quickly googled the website and started going through the process. I noticed that some fields on the form that are normally required were optional, such as my date of birth, email, and date of travel. I also noticed that the page was a single, long-form and that the website looked out of date. I thought it was strange, but since it was my first time ever completing the form for the DR, and I was using the website given to me by the ticket agent, I kept going through the process.
After submitting all my information, I was taken to a credit card page, where I was asked to pay $79 for the QR code to enter the country. I was shocked by the price and figured it must include the cost of a visa. My lack of sleep didn't help because I forgot that US citizens do not require a visa when entering the DR.
Only one of the images below is from a legitimate government website:
I paid with my debit card and was taken to a page that said my application would be processed in 1-2 days.
"Days!" I thought, "but I'm boarding my flight in the next hour!" I felt my anxiety start to creep up. I texted my cousin the link to ask him how long it took him to get his QR code.
He told me that he also forgot to fill out the form and filled out the application at the airport, but he received his code instantly and didn't have to pay any money.
We started brainstorming why the same website would charge some people money but not others. We figured maybe it was because he's flying from JFK, and there's no fee for New Yorkers flying to the DR?
The longer I thought about it, the more I questioned what the $79 was going towards. I sent an email to customer service, and they wrote back stating that they are a "private company." They claimed that their service fee of $79 is to help send your application to the DR government (something you can do for free by going to the actual gov't website). They claimed the $79 also covers "answering any questions about your QR code 24/7" and "resending you a QR code in case you lose it." These are all very basic "services" which do not constitute $79, especially when the QR code itself is free and instantaneous.
I searched for the website on Google again and realized that there were, in fact, two websites-- one that looked very similar to the legitimate government website and another that was the actual government website called migracion.gob.do.
In my sleepiness and rush to get to the gate, I must've clicked on the link to the illegitimate website.
I responded and told them that they were pretending to be an official gov't website and that I had already received a code for free from the actual DR gov't website. Simultaneously I was calling the bank because I had no idea who this company was or what they would do with my debit card information.
The company immediately "processed my application," which was much less than the 1-2 days stated on the confirmation page, and said they couldn't offer a refund because my QR code was already sent to me. I responded to them, letting them know that I knew they were scamming people out of money. I never received another correspondence from them after that last message.
Thankfully, my bank issued me a refund. I was also able to order a new debit card while standing at the boarding gate. I quickly transferred cash to an account that would give me access to cash in case of emergency and closed down the card the scammers used.
Aside from having to re-add all of the bills that are on autopay with my new debit card information, I was able to resolve this issue without much headache. Here are some tips on how you can stay safe from Visa scammers while you're traveling abroad:
Fill out the required forms ahead of time using a link on the US State Department's website. The US government will link you directly to the consulate or embassy of the country you're visiting.
Verify you're on the country's government website. Look for an "About" section that confirms they are a government website and not a private company. You can also check the URL to confirm it's a government site, but if you're clicking too fast you may think you're navigating to a gov't page, and end up on the wrong site.
Don't click Google "ads" for entry forms. Government websites aren't going to pay for ads to promote their entry form.
Get sleep before your flight. The best way to stay alert during travel is to get rest. It'll save you time and money in the long run, so even if you have a long-haul flight and plan on sleeping on the plane, be sure to get your rest before any flight.
By the way, the legitimate form is this one: