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US Embassy backtracks on scam warnings about American's repatriation efforts

US Embassy backtracks on scam warnings about American's repatriation efforts
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An American woman trying to repatriate Americans stranded abroad during the coronavirus pandemic says the U.S. Embassy in India slandered her name on social media by calling her efforts a scam.

South Carolina resident Brittany Garvin-Albury, who has won public praise from former President Obama for hurricane relief efforts, said she is trying to help stranded Americans return to the U.S. She recently set up a website to gather information for travelers in Australia, India, Peru and Spain.

Garvin-Albury is part of a diverse group that has sprung up in the absence of consistent messages from the State Department to Americans stuck in foreign countries that have closed their borders.

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But the U.S. Embassy in India flagged her efforts as a scam, taking issue with her website’s address, and sent out alerts on Facebook, Twitter and social media accounts linked to U.S. consulates for Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kolkata.

All of the posts have been taken down, many within eight hours, but they drew a strong response from individuals who support Garvin-Albury’s work. And it was elevated to the attention of at least one state legislator who spoke out on her behalf.

“It has come to my attention that the United States Embassy in India has placed a fraud alert on South Carolina Citizen and Charlestonian Brittney Garvin (Albury),” state Sen. Sandy Senn wrote in a letter to the U.S. Embassy on Thursday.

“I was shocked to see such an alert,” Senn wrote. “Brittney worked tirelessly by my side after Hurricane Dorian hit Abaco, Bahamas. She has always been honest in my dealings with her and she has always come through with whatever she promises.”

The State Department is in the midst of an unprecedented effort to repatriate thousands of U.S. citizens in dozens of countries around the world that have shut their borders on short notice over the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

It has brought more than 35,000 Americans home from 72 countries since the end of January.

But the agency came under harsh criticism early on for being too slow and uncommunicative.

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Stranded Americans have since mobilized online and on social media to source options and share information to return home in the absence of information from the U.S. government.

Garvin-Albury stepped in during the first days of confusion, helping efforts to organize travelers and float options for private charter flights in Peru before the State Department took over.

A nurse from Charleston, S.C., Garvin-Albury first gained prominence as an effective mobilizer through her efforts helping Bahamanians in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in September.

She received an endorsement on Twitter from Obama in September and was featured in local news stories.

On Wednesday, she announced on social media a website to organize information from travelers in Australia, India, Peru and Spain, asking them to submit identifying information and include a PDF copy of their passport.

The next day, the U.S. Embassy in India flagged her efforts as a scam.

“An individual using the name Brittany Garvin-Albury on Facebook is soliciting passport information and money from U.S. citizens using a FAKE website (ending with .net rather than .gov) promising repatriation on a private charter flight. This is a SCAM,” read the post on the U.S. Embassy India Facebook page.

It was public for at least eight hours before being taken down, according to screenshots reviewed by The Hill. The post had at least 58 shares and almost 200 likes, while the embassy page has more than 2 million followers.

Similar mentions of Garvin-Albury were included in email alerts sent to Americans enrolled in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program by the U.S. Consulate in Hyderabad. Mentions of her as a scammer were public on a COVID-19 health alert posted to the website for the U.S. Consulate General Chennai, which no longer mentions her by name.

“We have become aware of scammers claiming to be offering repatriation flights and directing them to make online payments or transfers. One example is an individual using the name Brittany Garvin-Albury on Facebook soliciting passport information and money from US citizens using an imposter website,” the embassy post read. “Be wary of scams. We will not ask for your financial information.”

Garvin-Albury told The Hill that money for the charter flights was to be handled much like the ones in Peru, with payments collected once the plane was already en route. She said that a corporate PayPal account was set up to provide fraud protection.

But the tweets by the U.S. Embassy nonetheless have hurt her credibility, Garvin-Albury said, causing her to scale back her efforts to help Americans.

“I think I’ll lay low for a while. I’m heart broken,” she wrote in a Facebook message to The Hill.

The U.S. Embassy in India did not respond to a request for comment.

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A State Department spokesperson told The Hill saying that it is closely monitoring the conditions in India and around the world.

"At our Embassies and Consulates overseas, our consular teams are working around the clock to identify transportation options for U.S. citizens seeking to return to the United States. For the most up-to-date and authoritative information about repatriation flights, we strongly encourage all U.S. citizens abroad to register through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (at STEP.State.gov) and to monitor the relevant embassy's website under 'Alerts and Messages for U.S. Citizens,'" the spokesperson said.

India is likely to pose one of the biggest logistical challenges for the State Department to evacuate Americans. The entire country has come under a strict lockdown, with a curfew during daytime hours, no public or hired transportation and domestic flights expected to be suspended until April 15.

Ian Brownlee, principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Consular Affairs on COVID-19, told reporters on Wednesday that they had heard from "multiple thousands" of Americans needing help to return to the U.S., but that the numbers change quickly.

The State Department has so far organized at least one charter flight that brought back 201 citizens from India and is working to help Americans throughout the country travel to Delhi and Mumbai for flights back to the U.S.

Senn has demanded the embassy issue an apology or provide evidence for calling Garvin-Albury’s efforts a scam.

“The alert I saw from the American Embassy in India indicated that Brittney was a fraud and collecting passport information and money. If this is true, please share your facts with me because I believe otherwise, and have referred Ms. Garvin-Albury to an attorney with FTCA experience in Federal Court,” Senn wrote.

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The FTCA is the Federal Tort Claims Act and provides that someone can file a claim against the government for damages over injury to a person or property because of the wrongful or negligent actions of a federal employee acting in their official duties.

“I would like to see this alert corrected and an apology issued to avoid further escalation of damage to Brittney Garvin Albury’s reputation,” Senn added.

—Updated at 5:13 p.m.