An article in The Guardian on 29 October reports on the widespread UK visa appointment scam inflicted on visa applicants, including international students, by education and migration agents in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Anyone planning to stay in the UK for more than six months – which includes virtually all prospective international students – is required to attend an in-person appointment in their home country to provide biometric information – i.e. fingerprints and a photograph. Education and migration agents are booking the available slots, which are usually free, and selling the appointments to desperate students for up to £800.

The scam exploits the online booking system provided by VFS Global, which handles UK visa applications in the region on behalf of the Home Office. VFS releases free appointment slots randomly but they are quickly booked by agents who continually monitor the booking portal manually or using bots. VFS said that most locations in South Asia have no issues with the availability of appointments, but a spokesperson admitted that there is an issue in Pakistan, where agents had “significantly ramped up their claims and activities this year”, in response to strong demand for UK study and work visas.

In a further statement the spokesperson said:

We take all attempts to misuse the visa application appointment system exceptionally seriously. We have not experienced this type or scale of abuse in any other UKVI [UK visas and immigration] locations and have been working closely with the UK Home Office to combat this abuse.

Comments from students confirm the scope and impact of the scam. One student who applied for a visa from Pakistan was unable to book a slot through the online portal, despite trying repeatedly. Brokers offered him an appointment within one to three days for 250,000 Pakistani rupees (approximately £735). The student said:

If you want to get into the VFS office, you have to pay someone. None of my friends have been able to book normal appointments. If they were able to arrange normal appointments directly, nobody would be giving these people so much money.

Another student from north-east Pakistan, was quoted 190,000 PKR (about £560) by a broker for an urgent appointment in VFS’ Islamabad office. She drove six hours only to find that the appointment was not available. Later she paid 40,000 PKR (about £120) to another agent, for an appointment eight days later. She said:

If you stand in front of any VFS centre [in Pakistan], so many people will come up to you asking: ‘You need appointment?’

In a statement the UK Home Office said that it was taking action to address the scam:

We are continuing to work with the provider to introduce measures to stop this fraudulent behaviour and ensure appointments are made available to genuine individuals.

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Source: The Guardian