Website falsely promises: 'Get your passport online fast and easy within 30 seconds'
Clients say online passport service takes advantage of Canadians looking for renewal assistance
Eric Glavin confidently stepped up to the booth at a Passport Canada office in Toronto thinking his renewal would take next to no time, because he had completed the online application in advance.
He was shocked when the passport officer told him there was no information about it in the system.
He had with him documents from PassportOnline.ca and had even prepaid $186.45 at that site, thinking it was for a 10-year renewal. The government employee shook her head.
"She said, 'No, you haven't paid anything,'" Glavin said.
Central Ontario's Better Business Bureau has received 21 complaints about the company, which is not accredited by the bureau.
I was like, I'm so stupid. What was I doing?- Eric Glavin about PassportOnline.ca
The complaints and reviews are similar to Glavin's: people found the service, thinking they were paying for passport applications or renewals, but did not receive the service they believed they purchased.
A number of Toronto-area residents have also reached out to CBC News, upset about their interactions with PassportOnline.ca.
"I was like, I'm so stupid," Glavin said. "What was I doing? I just threw all my information out at these people and didn't even think about what kind of services they were providing or whether this was a legitimate service."
It started when the Ryerson University employee Googled the phrase "Renew Canadian passport online," and PassportOnline.ca was the first suggestion.
He saw the tagline that read, "Get your passport online fast and easy within 30 seconds!" But he failed to notice it was an ad.
Glavin, 51, clicked and was immediately taken to a screen that looked official to him.
It was blue and white, with a maple leaf in the corner. A questionnaire popped up asking if he was a Canadian citizen, where he was applying from and if he was looking for passport renewal.
Glavin was soon headlong into the process without ever realizing he had linked to a private company that helps people with "the facilitation of applications," according to a disclaimer on the site.
He entered his credit card information and thought he was done.
Days later, Glavin received a package in the mail with forms to complete.
They're not really doing anything more than the passport office would do.- Eric Glavin
"It looked like it had been a Xerox of a Xerox, the kind of thing that you get in school when you're in Grade 9," he said. Glavin said he thought maybe the casual look was a government cost-saving measure.
There was fine print advising him to go to the passport office in person, "if you're travelling in the next two months." That's how he ended up in the government's office, stunned to discover he had paid for a service Canadians can get for free.
"They're not really doing anything more than the passport office would do," he said, referring to the assistance passport officers are obligated to provide.
A Winnipeg man said he had a similar experience with the same company. Sam Bebchuk, 88, discovered his passport would expire in December after his daughter had booked him an upcoming flight to North Carolina.
The trip was only a few weeks away, so he needed to renew his travel documents immediately.
"I went online, and the first thing I saw was PassportOnline, and it says it'll help you do it," said Bebchuk.
He also noticed the maple leaf and the legitimate-looking forms, answered all the questions and called to pay $206.45 for an expedited passport.
"They say they'll do it all for you," he said. "You won't have to even leave the house."
Bebchuk received a package in the mail, but a representative called him and said his passport would not be done in time. He received a partial refund of $70, even though he said no services were rendered.
Glavin, who had paid $186.45, fought for a refund, but still ended up paying $75 for service he said he never received.
"Somehow there should be some way that the government's website is the first thing that you see so you don't have to feel like you're going to wade through 15 websites to find out which one is legitimate," Glavin said.
"It's something that's taking advantage of people."
Owners hard to find
CBC Toronto contacted PassportOnline.ca repeatedly for comment, but no one replied.
The Better Business Bureau's website states the service started approximately a year ago and is owned by John Jesse Breslin and Michael Kennedy.
Other searches showed Breslin is also the director of PardonsWaiversCanada.com Inc. and Kennedy is its administrator. That business listed an office on Consumers Road in Toronto and Breslin's primary address as 78 Martin Ross Ave. in Toronto.
CBC Toronto went to both addresses seeking to talk to Breslin and Kennedy about their clients.
At the Martin Ross Avenue address CBC found a Korean-language television station whose employees had never heard of Breslin.
The employees at the PardonsWaiversCanada.com office on Consumers Road said they didn't know Breslin, but knew Kennedy was involved with PassportOnline.ca. But they couldn't say how to find him.
Passport Canada warning
In 2015, Passport Canada released a warning to Canadians to protect themselves as "certain organizations claim to offer 'support' to Canadian citizens who want to apply for a passport, such as by selling information kits that outline application procedures. Some also falsely claim to be able to speed up the passport application process for an additional fee."
Passport Canada said that in some instances these promises may even amount to fraud.
At that time, Consumer Protection B.C. also posted the warning.
Recently, Bebchuk called the Better Business Bureau of Manitoba and learned he wasn't the only one to have a bad experience with PassportOnline.ca.
At the passport office, Bebchuk and his son-in-law Allan Appel were told employees had heard of the company but were unable to help.
"There's nothing they can warn the public about, because they're doing legal stuff," Appel said. "They're in the business of helping people fill out professional forms."
The small disclaimer tab at the bottom of the website links to language about what the service does, or doesn't do. "We provide the convenience, freedom and ability to help or assist those in need .… We charge a nominal fee to have applications reviewed and facilitated," and this doesn't include any government fees.
In a statement responding to this story, the federal government said Passport Canada is not affiliated with PassportOnline.ca or any other third-party service provider, and it advised the public to be cautious of any groups claiming to offer support with passports or travel documents, especially for a fee.
With files from Caroline Barghout