But is it ignorance of the new rules or lack of confidence in the original site that inspires people to look elsewhere, inadvertently creating a demand?
Since January 12 2009, all tourists traveling to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program are required to submit details about themselves and their upcoming trip on the Electronic System for Travel Authorization Web site.
The site, created by the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Customs and Border Protection in an attempt to strengthen security and simplify entry to the US, allows visitors to submit their travel details and provides instant approval via automated response.
In the past month, several unauthorized sites with similar names have popped up and are charging unsuspecting travelers anywhere from $49.95 to $249.95 per person to assist with the application process. While this is clearly a lot of money, the question of how much value sites such as these provide needs to be examined.
"No traveler should have to pay for any sort of form to be filled out," a spokesperson for the US Consulate told The Age, adding that the consulate encourages travelers to avoid these sites because "in many cases, they are not legitimate."
Unfortunately, the problem with this statement is that the 'illegitimate' sites are often easier to navigate than the official site which is confusing at best and has been criticized itself. While this does not justify the popping up of unofficial or illegitimate sites that offer 'help' for a fee, it does need to be noted.
"The Web site has put off a few people," The Age reports, and points to the wording on the sites splash screen:
"You are about to access a Department of Homeland Security computer system...there is no expectation of privacy when you use this computer system."
While most Web folk will recognize this to be nothing more than a warning, the lawyer speak that we typically see on a privacy page, the splash screen is disconcerting and may in itself cause visitors to the site to hesitate if not leave.
Additionally, the official site is not user friendly. In fact, even I (and I consider myself fairly Web savvy) was puzzled by the layout of the site and had to slow down when attempting to apply; the link for which was not immediately apparent.
Recent statistics show that the majority of the world is still not connected to the Web and when you add to that the increase in identity theft and the media attention it receives, you can see why a lot of people may turn to other sites for assistance.
While lack of knowledge about the Internet and an unfriendly user interface do not justify the fees charged by other businesses, it may just point to - at least in part - the reasons why some folk would consider paying for a free service.
What do you think? Would sites that charge for a service that is offered for free survive if the original site was better designed?