Copycat website crackdown – could you spot a fake site?

Passport

Ever had to pay a fee higher than usual to get your passport renewed? Were you led to believe you were dealing with a government agent? Chances are you came across a copycat website.

We’ve had more than 500 comments to our previous convo on copycat websites, with many of you angry at being saddled with unnecessary charges. Among the sites complained about was British Passport Services.

National Trading Standards has confirmed that five individuals who are alleged to be behind the British Passport Services site were arrested last week.

One of the five was Richard Howard, director of UK Services & Support Limited, the company through which the site is run.

No formal charges have yet been brought against Mr Howard or any of the other four detained, and the website is still available online and handling passport applications.

More than 500 people complained to Citizens Advice about the site – believing they were using the government site before realising they had in fact paid more than £100 to a private company.

In comparison, a standard adult first passport or renewal costs £72.50, or £82.25 if you use the Post Office’s Passport Check and Send service. Child passports cost £46, or £55.75 using Check and Send.

Can you spot a copycat website?

Working out which document-processing sites are official can be more difficult than you think. They often look official, sound official and, to be fair, tend to do the job – but at a completely unnecessary cost.

Any website that is claiming to be an official government website should have a .gov.uk address – you can find more advice in our guide on how to spot copycat websites.

Do you think that more should be done to stop copycat websites from misleading people? Have you been tricked by a copycat website?

Comments
Member

Excellent news that Richard Howard has been arrested and well done to his victims who had the guts to let him take them to court and Legal Beagles for their help and support.

Let us hope justice continues to prevail and he pays for his scamming.

Member

I don’t understand why people visit obviously commercial web sites for obtaining a British passport or other public sector services like EHICs. Unlike other countries’ top level domains, the UK’s .uk top level domain is divided into many sub-domains, e.g. .co.uk for private sector companies, .org.uk for non-commercial organisations and .gov.uk for the public sector. The UK domain name system thereby makes it immediately obvious whether a web site is commercial or public sector. Therefore why do people visit British Passport Services’ web site which is on an obviously commercial .co.uk domain? Rogue traders like British Passport Services are simply cashing in on many people’s blatant stupidity. Caveat emptor.

Member
Forgetful says:
11 July 2015

Not everyone is as smart as you !
It drives me crazy when I am trying to get to a bona fide website for visas, there are a dozen official looking sites that give advice, but never get to the actual embassy in question. They are invariable out of date too. Sometimes it is really hard to get the correct site, especially when that is in a foreign language, and not a .gov.uk site !

Member

You make a very good point about visas and embassy web sites. Some embassies operate on their home country’s government domain name (British and US embassies do this), whereas others use a bespoke domain name in each country (French embassies do this). The latter makes it very difficult to identify a genuine embassy web site.

Member
David L says:
11 July 2015

Not completely true as some fraudsters are using .org.

Member

David, you are correct that some fraudsters use .org domains, but that doesn’t negate anything that was said above. Can you explain your comment please?

Member

My experience is that a lot of non net savvy people easily fall prey to these websites.

Member

If someone is incapable of reading a web site’s address, then they shouldn’t be using the internet. It’s akin to letting someone drive who is incapable of reading road signs. Would these same people send their passport application to a postal address where the company name ends in Ltd or plc? This is no different.

Member

NFH – The UK government provides legislation to prevent incompetent, unlicensed and unlicensable drivers from causing harm to either themselves or their fellow citizens.

I think the aim of this thread is to discuss whether or not any form of intervention in the free market is appropriate here. As I see it, the alternative is that the default dodgy capitalist entrepreneurial principle of “it is morally wrong to let suckers keep their money” would then stand unopposed.

Member

I think the solution is to search engines to remove links to these bad faith copycat web sites when users enter common search terms such as “renew passport” or “passport application”.

Member

I would have thought that the owners of these dodgy websites would be paying customers of web search providers, so the latter are hardly likely to voluntarily want to limit their income from such sources.

Member

You think that search engines should have a choice of whether to support fraudulent practices?

Member

I’m not sure that “cashing in on many people’s blatant stupidity” would actually constitute fraud in cases such as these.

But I do believe that commercial websites can pay money to web search providers, so as to appear sooner rather than later in the list of hits when searches are carried out for terms such as “passport application”.

Member

Google has responded to the criticism and none of the copycat sites appears in the first couple of pages of a search for “passport application”. Unfortunately, other search engines need to take appropriate action.

Member

I just thought I’d mention that the first red link in the Intro does not lead to the “previous convo on copy cat websites” but to the “guide on how to spot copycat websites” which is the correct destination of the third red link.

I think the initial Conversation on this topic was called “Have you been tricked by a copycat website?” [18 January 2014]. This has already attracted 572 comments from 222 contributors and there have been several derivative Conversations since.

Member

Hi John, many thanks for pointing that out. We’ve corrected the link now, which is to the one that you mentioned. Apologies.

Member
Emilio says:
5 July 2015

Nice article with good recommendations, but let’s be honest, people sometimes is too lazy to do further checks or they do not have the needed knowledge.

Therefore I am working on a project to easily spot (just by typing a website address) any either fake or not official website.

Regards

Emilio

[Hi Emilio, we’ve had to remove your link as we promotional content isn’t allowed on Which? Conversation. You can have a read through our commenting guidelines, here. Thanks, Mods]

Member

NFH – I can understand your scorn of the non-net savvy however governments and councils, and many other organisations are making people use the Net.

An idea I have mooted is that the Consumers’ Association should actually have a site where certified “good” links exist. This is because of aging and other incidents many people will continue or lapse into a state where they are not safe to wander the Net.

So the process would be go to Whichpedia [default search setting]
type in passports and go to a page [vertical!] that links to the offiical sites for renewals or new passports.

Usefully it could also link to practical advice that you may not get from Gov.uk sites.
And even to a more detailed Which? Travel site.

Essentially an on-line community where it is safe to roam and where to go out to! : ) And a service that many older people would find reassuring and worth paying for.

Member

I suspect that many have been lured to use copycat sites by the promise of rapid service. It’s fairly well known that passport renewal can be slow. Having had a look at ‘British Passport Services’, mentioned in the introduction, it is very clear that it is not an official site. Presumably this has changed as a result of the publicity.

I would like to see passport sites etc. carrying a prominent notice on the homepage indicating that this is not the official site and providing a link to that site. Then users can choose whether to use the government site or the one they have arrived at.

Member

This conversation raises the usual question of how do you protect people from fraud. By their nature, fraudsters (including those who trade on consumer ignorance) are clever people who know how to exploit a system. Simply expecting all consumers who use the internet to distinguish between domain names is fanciful, and expecting fraudsters to put an advisory notice on their website is against the fraud culture. They will find ways round it.
I offer no solution. Can anyone suggest foolproof ways of protecting people?
I’ve used the (physical) Post Office in the past to renew passports – not expensive, good at checking documents, and fairly quick.

Member

Malcolm,

If you have one nearby, going to a real Post Office is a great way of getting these things done without being defrauded.

The other side of the coin is that the internet is a largely free and unregulated market place – savvy users will realize that the usual principle of “buyer beware” should then apply.

Member

DerekP, I agree. However a substantial number of internet users are not savvy. No more than they are vulnerable to telephone scams and face-to-face confidence tricks. I know it doesn’t help! It seems an inescapable part of life.

Member

People are not savvy generally and as you get older many people become more credulous. And this leads to the following situations:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-33386934

” The FOS found that 80% of consumers conned out of their cash were over the age of 55.

People who are the victims of so-called “vishing” scams cannot always rely on their bank to compensate them, a study has suggested.

In nearly two-thirds of cases the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) found that banks were not responsible for victims’ losses.

It looked at 200 examples of the telephone fraud, in which account holders lost up to £100,000 each.”

And see how useful on-line banking is :
“”They asked me to check my account online … and said there was a risk my account would be hacked,” said Mrs Sinclair. “They said they had set up new accounts and they would talk me through it.”
Makes transactions so much faster.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/bank-accounts/10882193/I-lost-17500-in-vishing-scam-because-I-didnt-watch-The-One-Show.html

Member

It seems to me that not enough is done to stop scammers.

With vishing, in many cases people realise fairly quickly they have been conned. If a victim contacts their bank quickly enough, why don’t banks follow the money and get if frozen until the matter is sorted out? I think banks could work together to do a lot more to protect themselves and their customers.

The police don’t seem to be too interested either.

I did like your idea about a “Safe Site” though.

Member

I believe that any company offering ”add-on’s” to government services should be required to register and be regulated with a code of conduct. It isn’t so much ‘copycat’ websites now as ‘third party’ websites. This would include things like the Post Office ‘check and send’ service and potentially accountancy firms offering to file tax returns.

Sites such as BritishPassportServices say they provide ‘added value services’ – although the vast majority of people who end up using the site ONLY want to book an appointment at the HMPO – which is a completely free service by calling 0300 222 0000. The website says that they provide a pelthora of extra services which are chargeable – these include an email with a link to google maps, a multilingual translation tool (which doesn’t work), a voucher for an emergency travel document, a international driving licence (which isn’t an official document at all), telephone support (if you ever get through), posting a passport form to you ( a week too late to be any use) – and so on and so forth.

The main issue with BPS has been the incessant harassment of consumers who used their site if they refused to make the £117.60 payment. The threats of sending bailiffs, making you bankrupt, ruining your credit record – sending the police round and reporting consumers for fraud – even one person was told BPS would report them to the HMPO for using fraudulent documents to obtain a passport. Telephone calls shouting at consumers and finally ‘example’ court claim documents being sent out. All aimed to scare people into calling them and paying the £117.60 plus any number of charges added on.

We’ve around 45 customers who are defending against court claims from the company, 9 cases have so far been heard in court – and all 9 have been found in the consumers favour. However there have been 772 (up to end March 2015) case bought by BPS against customers. The huge majority of people are paying rather than deal with a court claim, or having a CCJ by default awarded against them to ruin their credit file for 6 years.

None of that would be able to happen with a registered and regulated third party website.

Member
Peter Morris says:
7 July 2015

It seems like this Howard character would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for these meddling Beagles.

Member
David says:
8 July 2015

I recently renewed my driving licence having been sent a note from DVLA advising me to contact their website for online renewals for those approaching 70.

BEWARE the DVLA web address is diverted to a number of bogus sites asking for a £50 or more fee plus financial details and it looks genuine with similar typeface, logos, crests and wording to fool the unwary.

There are a dozen or more fakes that pop up and you need to scroll down the list on Google until the correct site can be identified and entered. Thereafter it is simple and free.

Member

Hi David

Can you clarify what you mean by ‘the DVLA web address is diverted’? Were you searching in google? or were you provided with a web address which went to a copycat website?

I’m currently aware of drivinglicence-uk.com – which is using google advertising to appear when you search for ‘driving license’. They only show the fact that they aren’t affiliated with the DVLA at the very bottom of their website and charge £59.99 for a licence renewal which only costs around £15 if you go through the DVLA

I have reported the website using Googles adwords complaints tool, and I’d encourage everyone to do the same should they spot a copycat website being promoted using ads

https://support.google.com/adwords/troubleshooter/4578507?rd=1

Member
Ian Savell says:
11 July 2015

A quick Google search “dvla driving licence renewal” has these two services advertised at the top:

renew driving licence – Apply for your driving licence now‎
Ad http://www.driver-licence.org.uk/‎
New, Renewal, Lost Licences

Driving Licence Renewal – onlinelicenceservices.co.uk‎
Ad http://www.onlinelicenceservices.co.uk/‎
Renew Your Driving Licence Online. Simple & Fast Process!
24/7 Customer Support · Save Time & Hassle · All Major Cards Accepted

So more to question. And using an org domain for a commercial service? dodgy practice.

Member
Stuart says:
30 July 2015

Hi Ian,

With regards to your comments about the below website, is there anything illegal that these guys are doing or is it merely the fact that they are proving a service for a higher fee than what you would pay on the .gov website? Has anything been reported against this company or individual behind onlinelicenceservices.co.uk for misselling their services or doing anything illegal?

Driving Licence Renewal – onlinelicenceservices.co.uk‎

Member

If you want an official website for a government agency look for http://www.gov.uk/ in the address.

Member

Well done Legal Beagles – you are an immense credit to the altruistic side of humans/consumers.

Member

** blushes ** Thank you.

Another case was won in Cheltenham County Court yesterday against BPS.

Sadly another three new victims messaged me.

Happily the BPS website is currently unavailable.

Sadly Richard Howard has another 4/5 ready to pick up the slack.

Happily the EHIC-UK.org website is closed to new business … sadly they have just whacked 2 new ones up under a new company name with a new director.

DVLA websites – hundreds of the damn things…

It’s never ending, and it NEEDS regulating else we’re just chasing our tails.

Which? are in the best position to push for regulation with gov’t.

Member

I would love Which? [Consumers’ Associaition] to do something bold on this and your suggestions make excellent sense.

However Which? is not great on these endeavours witness the “decision” not to support AllTrials despite 582 organisations signing on – including several European consumer organisations.

Incidentally today I stumped up towards legal expenses as a drug company fights back on having to provide data on all trials – rather than solely on those trials which are helpful to the drug company. A cause and case that surely affects every consumer.

Member
Stewart Herring says:
3 May 2017

I had to apply for an e-visa to Turkey this year
I only spotted the fact that that it was a copycat website when it came to paying for the visa. the copycat website was trying to charge me twice as much as a visa chould have cost.
Needless to say I logged off immediately.
I logged onto the proper website later and was charged the correct rate of $20 per person.
The copycat website had the cheek to email me to see if I wanted to continue and get a visa through them.
I would guess that if I had continued I would have got a “proper” visa. Just at twice the price.
This is the correct site
https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/

Member

Hi Stewart, sorry to hear that you were caught out by a copycat website. We’d be interested to know the address for that website – are you able to email it to us at conversation.comments@which.co.uk

Thanks for sharing the official link, but for visas and information on entry requirements it’s best to follow the links to the correct site from the gov.uk foreign travel advice site https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

Member

I should have posted this in here:

Increasing numbers of domains being registered to trick customers.

Member

I am surprised this convo is “back on ” again , its obvious that the public have not been given highly publiced information from HMG , if they have its usually in those hard to locate click on this-that-the other to gain any information very off putting. I can see why its being publicized again if it gets much worse Big Business will be affected due to loss of public confidence and we cant have that can we? with Globalization now in force and even World Government in the offing ( USA of course is the world government. Anyway enough of politics For a long time I have been an advocate of protection apps on your browser , usually totally ignored , but anyway I dont give up. The problem is browsers like Firefox etc are BANNING them and introducing money making less than secure apps in their place hiding under the banner of “protecting you ” —BULL !! those apps report to third parties to make money and are not worth installing on your browser as they imply FALSE confidence . The ONLY way to slow this down is to install -in browsers that will accept them and NOT modify them genuine-kosher security apps like I have , hated by commercial enterprises , will the public install them -NO chance -why because of convenience in operation I have whittled them down to three but sad to say some well know browser block them and direct you to THEIR app store just like Windows 10 . The alternative ? an expensive internet/ malware blocker/ virus blocker system NOT a cheepie that blocks malware websites /bad java script / rubbish certificates etc etc as well as malware SERVERS . Will anybody listen to me ? no chance as they will be swayed by commercial propaganda .