Since most préfectures moved to online appointment systems police have broken up several rings of professional scammers working in this way.
But it seems that the problem is still ongoing, particularly in Paris and the surrounding suburbs, with official appointments scarce and a plethora of websites and Facebook pages offering ‘one click rendez-vous’ services for anything from €30 up to €400.
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, 27, has been trying for almost a month to book an appointment at the Paris préfecture to pick up her completed visa.
She said: “It’s so frustrating, my visa application is complete, all I need is a slot for a five-minute appointment at the préfecture to show ID, pay the fee and collect the completed card, but I’ve been trying to book one since January 3rd and there are just no slots.
“I’m checking the website multiple times a day and still nothing.
“I friend told me that the préfecture puts up the new appointments for the week at one minute past midnight on Sunday, and they had got one my logging onto the website then, but I was all ready at the time, multiple browsers open and ready, but still couldn’t get one.”
The typical MO of the scammers is to use automated bots to immediately book all appointments that a préfecture posts. They then set up a website or Facebook page offering ‘easy rendez-vous’ appointments, alerts on available appointments or ‘one click RV services’ – users are then offered an available appointment in exchange for a fee.
Although some administrative procedures like visas or resident cards come with a fee, the appointment itself at the préfecture should be free.
Another American in Paris told us: “I used the new online service to renew my titre de séjour – it was brilliant, really simple and so much better than having to go down to the préfecture with a huge stack of documents every year – but now I can’t get an appointment to pick up the card, which should be the easy bit.”
Another reader told us that it had taken them three weeks to get their appointment, but when they went on the appointed day staff were not busy and many appointment slots appeared to be vacant.
Local authorities periodically post warnings on their websites if scammers are operating in the area, while French media including Le Monde and Le Parisien have repeatedly flagged the problem.
While the issue is annoying and stressful for many foreigners in France, for those in precarious situations such as refugees the problem is even more acute and can see them losing the right to legal status in France.
In areas like Seine-Saint-Denis, which has a large number of migrants living in the area, many people resort to turning up at the préfecture in the early hours of the morning, hoping to secure an appointment slot when offices open.
Hannah added: “The whole situation is really stressing me out but I’m aware that I am in a privileged position – my visa is already sorted and I have a job where I can be constantly refreshing to préfecture website. Also I can take time off whenever I finally do get the appointment slot. Other people are not so fortunate and this must be terrible for them.”