Wally's comments on life, on music, on pianos, on church, on the Bible, on Palm Beach County, politics, and whatever else pops into his head.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Earlier this year two family members of mine in Venezuela, my son's grandmother and uncle, went to the US Embassy to apply for a tourist visa. They have been wanting to visit me here in the USA for a long time, and I have been planning to show them around. After about a year of trying they were finally able to get their Venezuelan Passport and so were able to apply for an American tourist visa.

They filled out all the papers as requested and paid the application fee, which in their case amounted to half their monthly income. The day for their interview finally arrived and they took the overnight bus trip to Caracas for their appointment.

After reviewing their documents and asking them a number of questions, they were finally told that the visa could not be given them because they posed a “flight risk”. It seems that the interviewing agent did not think their situation in Venezuela was stable enough to convince him that they would not try to violate the terms of their visa – that they would end up staying in the USA.

At first I thought it was ridiculous, almost funny, that they could be considered as candidates for violating their visa. Elena is a very strict woman when it comes to following the rules. It had not even crossed her mind that the tourist visa was anything more than that – a way to come and visit me for two or three weeks and to get to know first hand about this country she is always hearing about.

Then I became angry because they were never advised ahead of time that this would even be a consideration. In other words they were being accused and found guilty of a crime they had never committed, never intended to commit, and never even known about!

To make matters worse, they were out of all that money and time with nothing to show for it except bitterness in their hearts for having been thought of as some kind of criminals for simply wanting to legally visit me for a couple of weeks and to see some of my country as tourists.

Then I thought about how many other people end up in the same boat. They pay money that is hard to come by, do their best to meet all the requirements, then end up being graded on questions they weren't even told would be on the test.

A scam is an intentional act to deceive in which the perpetrator convinces the victim that he will receive some goods or services in exchange for money or some other thing of value, when in reality the perpetrator knows that the victim will not receive anything near what he expects. It is usually designed so that there is no recourse, or such recourse is very difficult. This may be due to some cleverly worded disclaimer or due to the power wielded by the perpetrator. It is especially bad when the perpetrator is a person or organization that the victim trusts. Once such trust is violated, though, it is very hard to win back.

It would be much harder to prove the existence of a scam if the fraudulent behavior only occurs occasionally. For instance, if the perpetrator only cheated one out of five victims, then he could say that other factors were present and that it was not a scam. But if, through experience, the perpetrator knew ahead of time that possibly that many victims would end up with much less than they were led to expect, it still could be considered a scam.

Casinos operate on that basis. They give just enough promise of high gains for the investment to make people want to invest more and more, even though they know that most people end up losing money. It could be considered a legal scam, because its operation is generally known and permitted by the law in some areas.

In other cases, the goods or services being offered are real and sure, but the price being paid is so outrageous in relationship to the real cost, that it could be considered a rip-off or price-gouging. But sometimes the consumers are willing to pay such a high price due to the great desirability of the goods. Consider the case of computer software. A simple vinyl disk in a cardboard box with some instructions would probably cost only a few dollars to produce, but customers will pay 20 to 50 times its production cost in order to have what they deem valuable to them. The alternative is to go without, or to buy a less suitable item.

In the case of the visa operation carried out by the United States Department of State, the officials know from experience that many applications for visas will be denied, so the disclaimer states that the fees being paid are for only the application, without any guarantee that a visa will be granted. However, they do not state that they are looking for information which is not requested in the application. In other words the applicant is being judged on things he is not aware of, and therefore has no way of preparing a suitable defense for such judgment. And since the application fee is so high in comparison to the services provided, it could well be considered a scam operation.

Perhaps the U.S. State Department could learn a lesson from all this in relationship to the current illegal immigrant situation. If a person of little means has to invest a month's income in order to merely make an application for a visa without any assurance that the visa will be granted, then he will probably look for an alternative. Theoretically he could invest a year's income making continuous applications, and still not be able to enter the US. But if the same amount of money given to a coyote would give him a 90 percent chance of entering the US, though illegally, he would most likely take that course of action.

I would encourage our State Department to not hide anything from its “customers”. If the customer will be judged on certain things, he should be informed ahead of time so that he can prepare his defense. It's only fair. The application fee should not be burdensome, especially if there is a high probability that the application will be rejected. If it is rejected, there should be given complete reasons and suggestions to correct them in future applications.