Attack Of The Visa Bots: When Hackers Make Life Hell For Immigrants
A first-hand experience of how illegal bots are making it impossible for many immigrants in France to live here legally.
PARIS — On a Sunday night in mid-January, I was prepared with a computer and phone to try to get a ticket for the hottest event in Paris. A cool new band concert? A Champions League soccer match? No, as an American citizen living in France, I was simply trying to get an appointment to pick up my renewed visa. When the clock hit midnight — when new slots were supposed to open up — I immediately clicked on the button to see the available times.
Sadly, though, I instead received the same message I’ve now gotten for over a month: Il n'existe plus de plage horaire libre pour votre demande de rendez-vous. (“There are no more free time slots for your appointment request.”) I went to sleep with the growing sense of anxiety over my ability to stay in France and also of defeat that illegal tampering with the visa system was preventing me, and countless others, from regulating our residency statuses.
As a tech-savvy millennial, I was shocked at first that I was unable to navigate a seemingly simple booking system. I’ve also lived in France for more than two and a half years, and have gotten pretty good at dealing with the country’s notoriously headache-producing bureaucracy. I’ve spent more money than I’d like to admit making triplicates of documents and hours waiting in lines to only be told I’d forgotten a certain document or filled out a form incorrectly.
But at this point in the visa process, I’d already had my paperwork approved and was simply trying to make an appointment to pick up my visa from the prefecture, a government administrative building. The slot I wanted to make is only for five minutes because that’s all the time it takes to show an official you paid an online fee and for them to go to a backroom and find your visa. But for more than a month, I’ve been unable to find an available slot. When I emailed the help desk, they simply said to keep checking because new appointments would be added; clearly, that was not the case.
As an American citizen living in France, I was simply trying to get an appointment to pick up my renewed visa
A 400-euro appointment
I started complaining about this situation to friends. My temporary visa would eventually expire and if I didn’t have the permanent one, I’d be living here illegally. One commiserating fellow foreigner alerted me to the real reason I couldn’t make an appointment: Some entrepreneurial (in the worst way) individuals are deploying bots that automatically book all the available appointments when they go online. Then through apps and Facebook groups, they sell the slots for upwards of 400 euros, as French newspaper Le Monde reported last year.
Cyber security isn’t just for the rich and powerful
Some people have been forced to wait longer than a year trying to get an appointment because of the bots. The French Ministry of the Interior told Le Monde that "several mechanisms have been put in place to limit this risk,” with 58 million illicit or malicious connections identified and thwarted in the final four months of 2020.
There are even some who, unable to make appointments, have hired lawyers to argue their cases, though given that many can’t even afford what a bot appointment costs, this is a largely inaccessible route.
Reading through the Le Monde article reminded me of what I already knew, even in the worst moment of frustration: Others had suffered far more than me at the hands of the bots and their greedy masters. The newspaper reported stories of desperate immigrants and refugees who were unable to confirm their status because of bots. Karima, a 40-year-old from Morocco, has been living at a government-run facility and was unable to work because she doesn’t have a visa. She has to borrow a computer each time she tries to make an appointment.
Scalpers and raffles
Lisa Faron, who works for Cimade, an association that helps migrants, told Le Monde that even they weren’t able to book appointments for their clients. Faron blamed the scarcity of slots for the reason bot businesses have popped up.
Indeed, the practice spans a range of activities, with increasingly stealthy bots used by scalpers to get concert and sport tickets or to enter online raffles. Whether this is fair or unfair manipulation of the markets for these kinds of activities, it’s certainly salacious when it targets the ability of people to be able to work or live in a town or country.
A week later, I once again stayed up again to try to book a midnight appointment, again with no luck. But when I woke up the next morning and tried again, I finally found a slot. Though I was relieved — ok, ecstatic! — that I finally got my golden ticket, it also made me think again of all the people who aren’t as lucky in what should be basic administration, not the lottery.
On that morning, I had also noticed that the only information I gave to finalize the appointment was my name and email, which I’m told makes it much easier for bots to take the slots. I’m no expert, but even just one added step of further identity verification could stop most illegal activity.
My weeks-long run-in with the visa bots left me thinking about other would-be immigrants facing far more difficult circumstances — a reminder that cyber security isn’t just for the rich and powerful, but is vital to protect the very basic rights to live in society.
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