Security by Design

Visa outsourcing: tackling appointment fraud  


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Visa outsourcing: tackling appointment fraud  

In recent years, the increase in the number of visa applications has outpaced the processing capacity of many government visa departments. With many Schengen governments forced to limit the number of visa appointments available at their outsourced visa application centres, this has led to an increase in appointment fraud, where intermediaries book appointments and then sell them to applicants for a profit. In this article, we explain the measures that we are taking at TLScontact to counter these fraudulent activities and protect our visa customers.    

International travel has increased exponentially over the past 10 years, as more and more people go abroad for tourism, work or study. The Covid-19 pandemic paused these trends, but only temporarily. According to UN World Tourism Organization figures, international tourist arrivals represented 80% of pre-pandemic levels in Q1 2023 and are forecast to reach 95% by year-end. As we explained in a recent article, this increase in international travel is putting ever more pressure on government visa departments.  

They have been able to manage this pressure to some extent, by outsourcing the administrative aspects of the visa application process to external providers, allowing them to focus solely on decision-making. However, there remains a strong – and growing – imbalance between the number of applications that can be handled by government visa departments and the demand from visa customers wishing to travel. Visa outsourcing companies have to limit the number of appointments available at their Schengen visa centres to match government visa department capacity, and this creates a shortage. 

The role of intermediaries in the visa application process 

As always when there is a disconnect between supply and demand, some seek to take advantage of the situation and offer to reserve appointments on behalf of visa applicants. In some cultures, it is actually very common to hire someone to deal with administrative procedures. It can also be seen as a legitimate process, as regularly checking an outsourcer’s website to find an appointment can be time-consuming and frustrating.  

However, the fees applied by intermediaries for visa appointment booking have increased significantly in recent years and their activities are making it ever more difficult for individual visa customers to book their own appointments online. Local authorities are limited in how they can respond to these intermediaries, as they operate in a legal ‘no-man’s land’. While selling fake documents to support a visa application is illegal, selling visa appointments is not explicitly prohibited by the law.  

Governments across the Schengen Area clearly understand the risks associated with these activities and the potential impact on their reputation if an opaque group of intermediaries effectively take over control of their online appointment booking system. Visa outsourcing companies are also on the front line, facing daily suspicions of corruption or collusion. Common interest between government visa departments and outsourcers is therefore increasingly leading to coordinated actions to limit the activity of the intermediaries and protect individual visa applicants.  

How to counter fraudulent activity 

At TLScontact, we are focusing on three key areas:  

We first aim to make sure that the person booking an appointment online is the final customer who will come to our visa application centre. That requires strong cyber controls to differentiate robots from humans, to eliminate fraudulent scripts and keep intermediaries at bay. We also make sure that once booked, an appointment cannot simply be handed over to another person: our software doesn’t allow any changes to personal data after booking.

However, there is a balance to find between security, ease of access for customers and respect for their privacy. TLScontact has invested heavily, both financially and in terms of human resources, to address that ongoing challenge. 

Secondly, we aim to optimise our existing resources. Online appointment release is managed closely with government visa departments to offer maximum opportunity to individual applicants. According to the country or the situation, we may release a steady flow of appointments on random dates and times, or instead decide to input thousands of appointments instantaneously to overwhelm the intermediaries’ processing capabilities. At the other end of the process, we have also managed to significantly reduce the number of ‘no-shows’, where an appointment is booked but the person doesn’t attend at their scheduled time. We have done this by asking for upfront online payment (Advanced Fee Payment) to confirm an appointment, and by contacting applicants before their appointments with an email reminder or a phone call. These measures allow us to maximise appointment availability, by ensuring that slots are not blocked unnecessarily.  

Finally, we implement strong security controls at our centres. In order to look more appealing and attract new customers, intermediaries often falsely claim to have access to insiders within the visa application centre or the consulate itself, allowing them advance access to appointments. In reality, only a very limited number of senior TLScontact staff have the necessary authorisations to modify the appointment table and each action is recorded automatically. Furthermore, the government visa department carefully tracks all appointments allocated each day.  

An ongoing ‘arms race’ to counter appointment fraud 

The intermediaries operating around some of our centres regularly introduce new mechanisms to book appointments. Our teams are therefore engaged in an ongoing ‘arms race’ to develop new measures to block them. Such measures can include One Time Password solutions to secure new accounts created on our system, or the use of facial recognition to confirm appointment bookings. These first need to be agreed  with our government clients and must strike the right balance between security and customer experience.  

TLScontact has always put in place comprehensive procedures and strong controls to stop the risk of internal fraud. Nonetheless, the best protection is incorruptible staff and that is why our strong corporate culture and human resource policies are also key in helping us to mitigate the risks. 

Our objective is to ensure that legitimate visa customers can book their appointments on our website through a simple and transparent process, and then focus on preparing their application and forthcoming trip.  

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