Seth Ruberto was afraid he'd have to miss out on his August trip to Europe when he learned his passport was about to expire.
The 19-year-old Minnesota resident put in a request for a renewal in early June and started looking for ways to set up an appointment to make sure he could make the trip.
Scrolling through online forums on Facebook and Reddit offered helpful tips, but Ruberto also found dozens of posts trying to peddle appointment times. He said he found price tags as high as $300, but suspects they go higher in private messages.
"The whole appointment system … is something completely screwed right now," he told USA TODAY. "There are a lot of people (online) that are taking advantage of the system."
Pent-up travel demand, staff shortages and delays within the U.S. Postal Service have caused the average wait time for new and renewed passports to shoot up to 12 to 18 weeks, according to the Department of State, which oversees passport applications. Before the pandemic, the average nonexpedited wait time was six to eight weeks.
Ruberto was able to snag an appointment after three days of trying, but he knows others haven’t been so lucky, especially now that there are people stockpiling appointments to sell.
Harried travelers are turning to third parties online to purchase passport appointments – typically a free service – to ensure that they can get their passports in hand before their summer vacation.
“I think it’s pretty scummy,” Ruberto said. “They’re taking advantage of people who are in a desperate situation.”
Rachel Arndt, deputy assistant secretary for passport services for the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the agency is aware of fraudulent requests for payment and is working to stop the sales.
"The department is not affiliated with any third-party appointment booking services, and we’ve seen numerous instances of falsified appointment bookings through these vendors," she told media during a Wednesday briefing. "And unfortunately, we may not be able to honor appointments booked via third party, so we are aware and are working to try to rectify that situation."
Ruberto ended up giving away his appointment for free after his passport arrived in the mail, using a Reddit message board to connect to another traveler.
“I’m hoping they won’t sell it,” he said.
How does the appointment system work?
The State Department is facing a backlog of between 1.5 million and 2 million passport applications, which means last-minute passport appointments are “extremely limited” at this time and prioritize travelers in emergency situations, Arndt said.
The State Department asks travelers who are renewing their passport to request the document by mail, but there are certain applicants – including those under 16 and first-time applicants – who must apply in person at a passport acceptance facility such as a post office, public library or local government office.
"U.S. citizens who wish to travel overseas this summer and do not currently have a passport may need to make alternate travel plans," Arndt said.
She added that there are a limited number of appointments available for people without a passport who have urgent international travel within the next three business days.
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When will the wait times drop?
Passport wait times were a fraction of what they are today prior to the pandemic, averaging two to three weeks for expedited applications and six to eight weeks for regular applications, according to a statement from the Department of State.
Waits today can last up to 18 weeks from the day an application was submitted. Paying $60 for expedited service can drop the wait down to 12 weeks.
The State Department is ramping up staffing to help speed up the application process, but Arndt warned that it will take time before the wait times drop to pre-pandemic levels.
"People who submit new passport applications right now will not get their new passport until well into the fall," she said. "As we bring more staff back into the office, we will continue to be as transparent as possible in updating the American public on how long it will take to get a passport.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Long passport wait times have led to online sale of appointment times