Trending on Google: This story was initially published this time last year.

Some Kiwi travellers are paying ten times the actual price of entering the United States because of a confusing Google search quirk.

Rather than a visa, New Zealanders can get into the US through the Visa Waiver Program called ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).

The application should only cost US$14, but Auckland photographer Evotia Tamua paid about NZ$180.


She needed an ESTA to travel to a wedding in Hawaii. When she entered the term "USA ESTA visa" into Google, she was showed a number of misleading ad results ahead of the official site from the US Government.

"I was trying to discover which looked like the official one," Tamua said. "I realised later on that [the one I clicked on] was not actually the official one because it didn't have a price."

She became aware she had been scammed when she was told by a friend what the actual cost should have been.

She emailed the site and received an automatic reply saying a refund would be processed within the next 14 days, but didn't hear anything further. She then contacted her bank and the transaction was cancelled.

Tamua did not receive an ESTA through her initial application, but after applying through the official site was granted one right away and made it to Hawaii with no issues.

She said it was her first experience of being scammed.

"I suppose everyone says the same thing but I like to think I am sensible person, but it looked like the official site and the description and the wording on the URL looked like it should be."

When the Herald used the same search terms in Google, the first four results showed ads for third party sites while the official US government site appears as the fifth result on the list.


A spokesperson for Google said: "We have clear policies against ads that mislead or trick users into interacting with them. When we find ads that violate our policies, we remove them."

However, while many of the sites can be confusing to individuals, they are not necessarily fraudulent, said Sean Lyons, Netsafe's Director of Education & Engagement.

"It's usually in the fine print. They're acting as agents, or a third party provider, to get your visa. But all they're doing is processing your details through the same channels you could on the official ESTA site – but they're charging you an absolute fortune for doing it."

In that case, he said, the harm was just financial, but some sites also used the process to steal personal information.

"You're giving your name, your address, your date of birth and your passport details – there's an awful lot of very private information that can be used by people with nefarious intent to do a lot of harm to your own online profile.

"In the most serious cases, you may need to think about cancelling and reissuing your passport if you believe that somebody has taken those details."

He said if travellers were confused by Google results they should check in with a valid third party such as the US Consulate or a travel agent.

A spokeswoman for the US Embassy in New Zealand said the embassy regularly worked to get accurate information to the public about ESTA scams.

Her advice was to ensure you apply through the official US Department of Homeland Security website, which is - and to be aware that if you are asked to pay more than US$14, you are not at the official website.