Canadians continue to be fooled by website that mimics government agency

A former employee of Passport Online and Pardons and Waivers of Canada tells CBC News the companies train workers to get as much money as possible from Canadians who could get the same services from the government for free.

Paying hundreds of dollars, Canadians share personal and passport information with online companies

Critics said the PassportOnline.ca website looks like an official government site. (Stephanie Matteis/CBC)

More than a year after CBC Toronto wrote about a website that has Canadians sharing personal information, passports and credit card information, thinking they're on a federal government site, clients continue to be duped by the company.

Passport Online provides what it calls application services, to help Canadians fill out a form that's available for free from the government. It's the equivalent of sitting with someone and telling them details to fill in the federal government passport application.

It is the top result on Google when searching with a variety of terms, including "renew Canadian passport online."

More than a dozen people have contacted CBC News since this story was first published in February 2017. Their stories are similar.

They shared concerns over giving personal details to a private company, sending their passports to a non-government agency, identity theft, the cost of the service and the fight for refunds.
Disclaimer on PassportOnline.ca (Stephanie Matteis/CBC)

While looking for passport renewal, they clicked on the site with a blue and white screen and Canadian flag in the corner that had them filling out personal questions and sharing credit card information for an amount comparable to passport renewal, well before any of them realize they were not on a Canadian government website.

Federal government response

Ahmed Hussen, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, told CBC News this is a concern.

'We, of course, care and [are] on guard every single day for the integrity of our citizenship system."- Ahmed  Hussen , minister of immigration and citizenship

"We, of course, care and [are] on guard every single day for the integrity of our citizenship system. We don't want anything to take away from that."

He added the government has a 1-800 number for complaints.

"From time to time we do find individuals who commit immigration fraud, citizenship fraud, to try to take advantage of people," Hussen said.

 "We will work...very closely with our security agencies, law enforcement officials, to tackle any citizenship or immigration fraud that we come across."

Company insider

Now a former employee of Passport Online is sounding the alarm about the company.

Admitting having preyed on Canadians who overpay for the service, the former employee shared warnings about Passport Online and Pardons and Waivers of Canada, which have the same owner.

The businesses operate at 515 Consumers Rd., Toronto. Employees there fill out applications for Canadian passports or applications for convicted criminals seeking pardons or waivers so they can travel to the United States despite their record.

The companies charge hundreds and thousands of dollars per application.

CBC News is not identifying the former employee who fears reprisal from the companies.

They locked all employees inside and would not let us leave even for a bathroom break for fear we would talk.- Former employee, Passport Online/ Pardons & Waivers of Canada

The employee described the day in February 2017 when CBC Toronto visited for an interview that ultimately was declined.

"A crew came to the office but they locked all employees inside and would not let us leave even for a bathroom break for fear we would talk."

The companies are owned by Jesse Breslin.

On the day CBC News was there, the employee said the owner's sister Stephanie Breslin told staff they were not to leave.

Industry Canada's business listings cites a Michael Kennedy as the administrative services representative for Pardons and Waivers of Canada at the same Toronto address. The employee said he is "made up. He doesn't exist." (Passport Online is not listed on the Industry Canada website.) 

The employee alleged being "trained to lie, manipulate and 'qualify' people as to how much money they make and price accordingly."

Credit card bills

In emails to CBC News, more than a dozen Canadians claimed that that their credit card bills were in the hundreds of dollars after they shared information with Passport Online.

It had the red flag and the little emblem like Canada Passport.- Alec Purves , Passport Online client

All of those people said they thought they were dealing with a federal government website.

Alec Purves, 71, said, "It had the red flag and the little emblem like Canada Passport. That shouldn't be."

When the Hamilton man got his credit card statement, the fee was twice what it would have been for a passport application.

Lynne Unger, 55, who works in finance technology in British Columbia said she's computer savvy and she still didn't realize the website isn't associated with the Canadian government.

You can get your Canadian passport application directly from the federal government. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

"It was right after I filled the credit card information the disclaimer showed up," she said.

She, like all others who wrote, attempted to get their money back from the company but was told they wouldn't be refunded.

Only those who repeatedly called the 1-888 number on the website and filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau received partial or full refunds.​

Eventually Unger got a refund and filled out the official government passport forms to renew her travel document "No problemo."

Official complaints

The Central Ontario BBB, which handles complaints for the Greater Toronto Area, says there are 72 complaints about Passport Online and 26 about Pardons and Waivers of Canada.

Emma Borski, BBB communications coordinator, wrote "our first complaints into Passport Online were submitted in June 2016. To date, we are still receiving new complaints on the business."

Complaints ranged from refund issues to sales practices and service.

Central Ontario Better Business Bureau shows complaints about Passport Online. (CBC)

She added, there are also online reviews on the BBB site, which differ from complaints, and those are predominantly negative.

The former employee said the company would accept clients knowing they did not meet government eligibility for a passport, pardon or waiver. Employees were trained to get more money through "an 'eligibility consultation' to people we know are not eligible and will never be eligible."

Especially in the case of pardons and waivers, the employee said the company preyed on desperation.

"It could be anything from a sweet old lady worried about a shoplifting charge from 20 years ago to a hardened criminal that's their job to be a criminal and make money off of other people's suffering. Or someone who made a mistake in the past and can't really move forward.

"But they're pumped with all these hopes and dreams that we're going to help them," the employee said.

The charges ranged up to $3,500 and the clients are told it can take years to complete, though "a pardon application can take 30 minutes to an hour to complete once we have the necessary documentation."

Ottawa policy analyst Chantelle Ladner found herself fighting for a refund from Passport Online after her mother completed the online application.

"The application itself looked and felt like a government of Canada application to me," Ladner said.

Passport Online charged "over $200 for a 'cut and paste' into a government form so they're not really providing a service," she said.

If this is brought up enough hopefully one of these can happen.- Chantelle Ladner's mother paid for service

Laws, regulations and policies can be changed to prevent a private service mimicking a government website and to protect consumers, Ladner suggested. "If this is brought up enough hopefully one of these can happen," she said. 

The former employee hoped sharing a warning might save someone grief someday.

"Maybe this will help me clear my conscience a little because I have shed many tears over this and truly feel terrible."

CBC News made renewed attempts for an interview with Jesse Breslin this week, but the requests continue to go unanswered.