/ Money, Technology, Travel & Leisure

Have you been tricked by a copycat website?

Passport

Ever had to pay a fee to get your passport or driving licence renewed? What about to do your self-assessment tax return? Chances are you came across a copycat website – if so, tell us about it.

Would you be happy paying for something you could’ve done yourself cheaper or even for free? No? Me neither. Yet, that is what’s happening to thousands of people online every day.

If you haven’t been tricked by a copycat website, there’s a chance you know someone who has. These sites charge a fee to process applications for official documents, such as passports, tax returns, visas, birth certificates, driving licenses and even the London congestion charge.

They often look official, sound official and, to be fair, tend to do the job – but at a completely unnecessary cost.

Devious document processing sites

We’ve been taking a closer look at these document-processing sites, and working out which ones are official can be more difficult than you think. For example, when you search online to renew your passport, copycat sites often appear at the top of the search results as they’ve paid to have their links promoted.

We think some of the wording in those search engine adverts can also cause confusion. In fact, we recently reported two passport processing websites to Google and the Advertising Standards Authority, because we thought they were using misleading language in adverts on Google. We felt that the ads for these sites suggested that they were affiliated with the official HM Passport Office website.

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

The cost of copycat sites

It also doesn’t help matters that some copycat websites can look more professional and appealing than the official ones. In fact, our scams investigation last year revealed that half of those who came into contact with a copycat website said they were fooled by them.

The average amount of money paid to these websites is £34. That might not sound like a lot, but when you consider that about 1,000 people unwittingly use unofficial sites to pay the London congestion charge every day, that small amount can soon add up to big bucks.

Plus, when you can usually get these services for free, it’s frustrating to see people being fooled into paying over-the-odds.

These companies may claim to provide an extra level of customer service that official channels don’t. However, we don’t think they do anything important that you can’t do yourself for free through official sites. As a result, we think copycat sites are a complete waste of money.

Have you been tricked by a copycat website? What were you applying for? How much did you pay? Do you think the government should do more to stop these sites from misleading people?

Comments

There’s nothing complicated in making sure you get a valid website. Government websites should all end in .gov.uk

I’m surprised at the number of websites that discuss this “problem” that never actually bother to point out the obvious. Like this one, and most action fraud tweets. Not even the telegraph article warning of copycat sites explains the simple use sites ending .gov.uk

Sites that want to help people avoid these sites, should be part of the solution and not help to further the problem.

And yes I know someone who has fallen foul of these sites, but I’ve never concerned her to be very bright.

Hi William, this advice is in our consumer rights link: ‘Any website that is claiming to be an official government website should have a .gov.uk address’ http://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/action/how-to-spot-a-copycat-website However, point taken – I have made an addition to this post. Thanks

The safest way to ensure that only .gov.uk web sites are used for any official search is to use Google’s Advanced search and specify “site or domain” to be = .gov.uk .( scroll down if you don’t see this field) See http://www.google.co.uk/advanced_search?hl=en This way the spoof sites wont even be presented. It would be nice to see this in Which guidance.

Just tried it and all it does is add site:.gov.uk to the search parameters, and entering ehic after it I still get all the pesky ads.

So unless I’be missed something, that doesn’t seem to work.

Roger Luckins says:
29 January 2014

I got caught on one of these websites last Saturday. I Googled passport renewals and this website appeared at the top:
http://www.uk-passport.net/Gov-UK‎

I happily filled in my details believing that this was the government site and was asked to pay a fee of £72.50, which I believed to be the fee for the passport. On pressing submit, IO received an instant e-mail confirming my details which I checked through. Once finished, I done exactly the same for my wife, parting with another £72.50. This time my wife didn’t receive the instant e-mail that was promised. After waiting around an hour, I clicked on the ‘contact us’ link which gave me a number to call. I rang this number which was the official passport office enquiry line who told me that they had not received any application from me or my wife. I was asked if I had paid up front and when I said I had, the lady told me that the site was not an official site because they never ask for the money up front.

To my horror, I now realised that I had paid £145 for two passport applications which cost nothing through the official site. I went through the scam site and there was no number I could call so reverted to sending them a mail through the site. Having read the small print, I only had myself to blame because the terms and conditions are clear that you are paying for a service and not the passport. I did receive an e-mail back from them stating that my payments have been voided and I would be refunded. I am still waiting!!

I’ve noticed that far too many people, when they want to visit a web site of an well known organisation, even one they have visited before, enter the name of the organisation into Google rather than typing the domain name into the address bar (which often auto-completes anyway). This is asking for trouble. These people incorrectly assume that Google is a verified list of web sites, whereas it is in fact an automated unverified list of pages which could have been published by anyone including fraudsters.

Typing the domain name is not without its problems because some websites use very similar URLs to those of well known companies to exploit the fact that people make typing mistakes.

If google changed the default colour of ads from that very faint pink to something brighter those pesky ads would stand out alot more and maybe start ringing alarm bells.

The coloured background of these adverts stands out very clearly on my computer, from minimum to maximum brightness, and there is a link to changing your preferences.

I could be due you an apology, William. Though Google adverts stand out clearly on my Macs, I was looking at a friend’s Acer computer and could not see any coloured background at all for the adverts, just the note about Ads on the first entry. I see your point.

No worries.

On some days I have noticed a yellow box containing the letters ‘Ad’ in appearing in Google searches. Apparently Google is looking at this as an alternative to the coloured background:
http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2309456/Googles-Yellow-Ads-Label-Now-Showing-on-Desktop-Searches

While experimenting with different search engines and browsers I was disappointed to find that Yahoo searches don’t do much to identify which results are ads.

Not noticed this on my boring desktop browser, although I have noticed that sometimes the ad box is at the bottom of the 1st page, but still very difficult to spot

I did google “google yellow ads search engine” and most the the entries were talking about mobile devices. 🙁

The yellow labels have been showing up on my Mac today, and it’s just the same on my iPad. It would be great if they become a regular feature.

Scrub what I said about no identification of ads on a Yahoo search. There is some small text at the top and bottom of the list of ads, but I managed to miss it.

Phil Peckham says:
18 January 2014

If you are 70+ the DVLA will remind you to renew your driving licence at their website
http://www.gov.uk/renew-driving-licence-at-70
My computer has Bing which predicts the website you want before you finish typing. I was given
DRIVING-LICENCE-APPLICATION.co.uk
This appears on screen with a crown and the words DRIVING-LICENCE-APPLICATION
together with a picture of the DVLA application form. In small grey print it says ‘not affiliated to DVLA or any official body’. There is a charge of £1 and you are sent a PDF form of how to fill in the official DVLA form. A receipt is sent with the offer to receive their magazines at the end of which, in small grey print is the following statement.
“Action against fraud:
When you used our service the IP address of your computer was recorded in order to prevent any fraudulent activity. All fraudulent claims or payment contestations will be the subject of a formal complaint, communicated to your bank with a letter supporting the original payment and the services requested. You will also be subjected to a block on both your card and computer for use on our site. As a reminder, this service is free of charge for 48 hours, after which time a debit of 24 GBP every two months will be applied.To cancel your subscribtion: click here or call us on: [phone number removed]
You must ‘click here’ within 48 hours to avoid paying £24 on your credit card which this company-
[email removed] or by phone at [phone number removed] – has obtained from you for the £1 application fee.
I regard this company as operating something which is almost a scam and they should be named and shamed
The moral is to NOT USE PREDICTIVE WEBSITE SUGGESTIONS

It is possible to turn off prediction of web addresses in a browser.

PeeDoff says:
18 January 2014

I know a husband and wife who have been caught out by copycat websites. She ordered Ugg boots from The Australian Ugg boot company website and is now trying to get her money refunded as the boots are fake. She is not an experienced online shopper so I’m not surprised she was caught out. Her husband is a very experienced computer user but when he went online to find out about renewing their EHIC he was pleased to find the site to renew them only charged what he considered to be a small fee. I happened to mentioned to her that I had just renewed our EHIC’s by phone and received them very quickly. She told me her husband was pleased with the online service and at a reasonable fee. They contacted the company and was given a 50% refund as a gesture of goodwill.

Members of Which? are quite savvy and are less likely to get caught by copycat websites or spam emails than the general public.

Jean Anderson says:
18 January 2014

TaxReturnGateway.com is a good example of a copycat website. When I used Google to look up the tax return web site I initially mistook this copycat site as the official government website. It was only when I got to the final data entry page, which advised that once you click next and proceed you cannot amend the details, I became suspicious and discovered it was a copycat site that charged a £100 fee.

I therefore backtracked through the pages, saving pages after deleting data on each. I then found the official gov.uk site (Page 3 on the Google seach results pages) and submitted my return.

you’re lucky Jean – I was caught by them and paid £400 of which I’m trying to claim some back having taken advice from the Which? legal team.. Not looking hopeful so far but I’ll keep trying. I was so angry at my stupidity!! Always done return on line before without any trouble. Feel so stupid!

Win, how do you get help from the Which? legal team, I am currently trying to get my money back from taxreturngateway who stung me for £150. I was so mentally fatigued after completing the forms and stressed that I had also assumed they were the government site. I think it is easy to criticise people for getting caught but their site is cleverly engineered so that you can complete the entire application without being aware that it is not the official site and also without seeing a hint of the ‘service’ you merely get asked to complete your details of your card to submit, you believe it is the cost of your tax for the year or details for them to forward your return. It is very sneakily done.

Hi Jen – the advice I got was to tackle them with the information that they were in breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regs 2008 under which it is a criminal offence to use misleading or aggressive practice. These are enforced by Trading Standards. I emailed them to this effect and the reply was “you’re very welcome to take this further” !! I was given a London address and will write them a letter this week. I’m not hopeful of getting a refund but it’s worth the cost of a stamp. I haven’t spoken to my credit card company yet about being in dispute with a service provider – that’s also on this week’s to do list. I am reading all the comments on here with great interest!

In my opinion there is ample evidence that the behaviour of these copycat websites is deliberately unfair and I hope an action on this basis will succeed. I would go further and say that it should be possible to construct an argument that trading that is not manifestly fair, by virtue of guile, concealment, obscurity, deception or misdirection, irrrespective of whether adversity was the intention, is thereby unfair to the consumer. The internet has spawned a whole load of service agencies and other intermediaries that would not be able to function without the virtual platform that enters every home; they wouldn’t stand a chance on the high street or through the small ads in the papers. Some are good for consumers but we need protection from those that are bad.

Marion says:
7 February 2014

A friend of mine has just been scammed out of £400 on a fake HMRC website. Unfortunately, we don’t know what that website was but I have been advised by Trading Standards to check his browsing history and maybe we can come up with something to report. It’s just disgusting that a Government Agency can do nothing about this horrible practice.

Hilary Mudge says:
19 January 2014

I got tricked by this site renewing my passport.
passport-uk.co.uk/
I paid £69 to fill the forms on line, thinking that was the passport fee. When the stuff arrived it was all fine but had to pay again at the post office, another £72, felt so stupid that the £69 was just an outrageous admin fee.

Thanks
HIlary

Bill says:
21 January 2014

I have also fallen for this not once but twice , one for myself and one for my wife. It makes passports very expensive. What is being done to stop these con men.
Bill

karen says:
24 January 2014

I have paid £69 to http://www.passportdirect.org.uk, thinking I was renewing my passport. And yes, because it was £69 i thought there was a small discount for applying on line.

Many years ago I paid something (not a lot) to renew EHICs. I’d never heard of copycat websites then. I have now but even so it is still something that you need to be careful of in case you make a slight mistake in the website address. I think the spelling of “license” as a noun is fishy!

GrahamG says:
24 January 2014

I needed to renew my EHIC today, and the first 2 sites suggested by Google were both misleading – they sounded official but charged around £24. I eventually found the NHS site from which renewal is free – this was easy (and potentially costly) to miss!

Claire, Kendal says:
25 January 2014

I did exactly that-paid to renew my EHIC. I am still so, so mad with myself. I am usually very savvy. However, was under a huge amount of pressure at the time with other issues. I was due to go on holiday, card had expired…in a rush…Googled to find the website to renew and just signed up to renew my card and paid the money!!! I even said to myself it has ‘always been free in the past’. Well and truly had. No comeback either when I realised my mistake too late. I even rang Trading Standards. Keen follower of Martin’s Money too which spells out the traps. Well and truly caught out…never again!! What stress does to one…I was even more stressed when I found out my silly, huge mistake!!

Ninepinnellie says:
25 January 2014

It cost us £23 by using the site below for EHIC;
European Health Card Application Website https://www.europeanhealthcard.org.uk/applications (SECURE) . It looks so valid! never again though.

Andy Cooke says:
20 January 2014

My wife uses Amazon a lot and recently received an email requesting details of some such thing or another. Fortunately they seem to spell Amazon differently in Ghana – seeing it spelt Amazzon it was ignored and deleted.

Peter P says:
20 January 2014

2 months ago I was duped by passportdirect.org.uk when applying for our newborn son’s first passport. The price was 47 pounds which is the price as a new passport. I didn’t know I’d been had until my trip to the post office for the check and send, when the staff told me you can’t pay for a passport online and that they were aware of many customers that had been “scammed” (their word).

The thing I worry about the most is the fact that these people have all our personal details. Yes, I feel pretty stupid for falling for it as I’m normally on the ball, so I can only think it’s sleep deprivation!

One more thing. When I received the envelope from the HM passport service, the letter stated that my passport application was pre-paid. Together with the HM Passport Service header on the letter, it made it all seem all the more legit.

Some people might take pleasure in other people’s naivete or personal circumstances, but it’s clearly causing a lot of upset and I don’t understand how these websites are allowed to trade.

They’re allowed to trade as they typically aren’t breaking the law. If you look at the website again there’s probably a throw away comment on it to the effect this site isn’t affiliated with whatever, click here to proceed to the the “real” site. And that unfortunately makes it perfectly legal.

karen says:
24 January 2014

It does make you feel stupid, I’ve never been caught out by any scam before, it all looked legit. Its so frustrating that it’s allowed to continue. On the action fraud website it states –

“What is fraud?

Fraud is when trickery is used to gain a dishonest advantage, which is often financial, over another person.”

Therefore, isn’t this fraudulant?

malcolm delahaye says:
21 January 2014

I don’t think I’m particularly stupid but I needed to get a Environment Agency fishing license quickly when about to go out the door and realised I hadn’t renewed. I just googled fishing licence and selected the top hit, it looked like an official site and didn’t stop to check anything. When I realised I’d paid more for the service than the license and checked it out I emailed the site and demanded a refund and got one. If you read the T&Cs you can cancel within a certain period.

Malcolm has provided us with an excellent example of the problem. At the bottom of a page of terms and conditions there is small print: ” Please note that rodlicence.net is not connected to or affiliated with any Government body. We offer a third party processing service for which a fee is payable.”

I am not opposed in principle to services that charge a fee to make life simpler, but I do believe that their websites should indicate what benefits there are and that a fee is payable before customers are allowed to proceed. There should also be a link on the homepage to the official service provider, which is the Environment Agency for rod licences.

Bill says:
21 January 2014

I have also fallen for this not once but twice , one for myself and one for my wife. It makes passports very expensive. What is being done to stop these con men.
Bill

Lesley Wild says:
21 January 2014

I got hoodwinked while completing my husband’s tax return. We have done this previously for many years, when I got to the website it was the same colour and as far as I was concerned it was HMRC but it was HMRCgateway I completed the form and at the end it asked for £500! Well that was a bit of a shock, I used his debit card and it was rejected, at this time we both should have been suspicious but no we carried on. This website said if you did not pay the money your tax return would not be submitted. Eventually we managed to pay (unfortunately) when finished my husband said that looks like an agency working for HMRC.
We phoned HMRC to enquire if this was an agency we were informed that this was a scam, we were taken aback to say the least. We decided to go to the correct website and complete the correct form and hopefully they would not be able to submit theirs as it had already been submitted.
We contacted the bank and they said they would look into it and try to stop the transaction and would block them seizing any more funds.
We are both amazed that this company is allowed to trade like this, I went back later to have a look and it is very convincing.
I shall look twice or three times at websites in future!

I think the unfortunate experiences described here demonstrate that web users have to be doubly vigilant when doing official things on line, both to make sure the service is legitimate and their payment secure, and to ensure they get the permit or document they are seeking. On-line application processes can be more dangerous than other forms of web shopping because the purpose is usually critical, the result has to be 100% reliable, documents have to be accurate, the personal data required is highly confidential, the transaction is usually quite expensive, and your money is gone in a trice. The people behind these ‘agency services’ are no doubt untraceable and likely to be outside our jurisdiction, and the opportunity for criminal misuse of the data collected is immense.

Since the government has closed thousands of post offices and tax offices and is driving us remorselessy down the ‘do it on-line’ route for everything, and since the perpetrators of these misleading websites are using complicated mimicry and terminological trickery, it behoves the government to take some responsibility for protecting citizens from exploitation. To start with, it should ensure, through the search engine operators, that the official government site appears at the top of all search results [we shouldn’t have to remember what the government calls it’s own portal these days – that has changed a few times in my experience]. Other action that needs to be taken by the government includes –
(a) imposing a requirement for a bold denial of official status on websites [and website summaries in search results] that purport to provide access to government services
(b) clarifying the role of intermediaries and seeing if there is some way of authorising proper and secure ones
(c) seeing if there is some form of escrow facility that can be introduced to protect the payment until the service is delivered [might also useful for the Cash4phones kind of operation]
(c) seeing if there is some form of bonding that can be introduced for legitimate intermediaries
(d) publish clear warnings about the use of unofficial websites
(e) police these websites and shut them down if appropriate.

As has been illustrated, getting a passport, visa, EHIC, licence, etc is often a short-notice business and, if doing it under pressure of time or circumstances, it is far too important to get it wrong. The government should therefore go out of its way to make sure that its own forms and application procedures are as clear as they can possibly be and simple for any web user to execute so that there is no room for the unofficial agents to operate in. I happen to think that the government sites are well designed, clearly written and extremely manageable, but then I am not daunted by admin whereas many people are. There seems to be a genuine need for a trustworthy facility whereby people can have a third party check their application before submitting it and committing payment. Is it a role, perhaps, that the CABx or some other not-for-profit service could perform?

If anyone uses facebook, you should probably be made aware that the ads that appear to the right of your timeline can at times contain alot of scam ads. I’ve reported many claiming to be from tesco , asda and sainsburys and yet they still keep appearing. So please be careful, facebook DO NOT vet ads that get posted.

I suggested that ads claiming to be from Tesco should only be allowed to be posted from someone logged in on a verified Tesco account, but they don’t seem to want to listen.

Katie B says:
24 January 2014

I recently used http://www.dvla-driving-licence.co.uk when I hurriedly went online via google when my son announced that he had lost his paper driving licence just before his test. It cost me £40 in admin fees on top of what should have been a £20 DVLA fee.
I only became aware of being scammed when the scammers sent me an email to confirm the details entered on screen and so checked my bank account.
What worries me most is that this company now have details of his passport, national insurance number and so forth. Surely these companies should not be allowed to operate in this way as this leaves people open to identity fraud?

kerry says:
24 January 2014

I too went via this website to change the address on my driving licence. I am by no means stupid and am generally computer savvy but was in a hurry and so googled dvla and this was the first site that came up and was even the same colour code as the official site. I realised after payment I had been scammed and so looked at the T&Cs and saw that I could get a refund if I cancelled by email within 7 days. It took numerous emails (some threatening) from myself before I got £32 of my £40 back. Angry that I did not get a full refund as they said it was due to the fact that the order had been processed (even though I contacted them immediately!). It was them who took over 7 days to respond to me. The site does not even have a telephone number. The site should be banned in my opinion.

Paul says:
24 January 2014

My daughter was excited to be applying for her first driving licence and made the application herself. I only put in my credit card details and paid the £60. I didnt think about checking it was the correct site as i knew the DVLA fee was £60. Only when the form was returned by DVLA asking for the £60 payment had we then realised that the first £60 payment was a scam. I called my credit card company (Tesco) and they knew of the scam but said the website does state the £60 is only their fee so i could not reclaim this from them. All in all an obvious scam when you take a second look. But more should be done to close these companies down.

I was caught out when renewing my wife’s passport. It was done in a rush and although the site said about their service this information was low down on the page and needed scrolling to and was after the point where you needed to click to complete so would not normally be seen. I am usually very careful and aware but we all miss things sometimes. Once I found out I contacted my bank and told them it was an unauthorised withdrawal, they refunded my money and I heard no more. I am surprised that google takes money to push these sites to the top of searches, they should be ashamed.

I forgot to mention, once I had realised I also cancelled my debit card and got a new one thus stopping the bogus company from trying anything else.

John says:
24 January 2014

Sadly I have just been duped when filling out 2 Tax Returns. The website is http://www.taxreturngateway.com and appears at the top of the page when searching for HMRC. Since I am usually savvy to oddball websites, this costly mistake adds salt to the wound.

The site seems okay until one reaches the end and a very limited summary appears, omitting for example additional income and gift aid. At this stage I ‘smelt a rat’ but having invested time in filling out the online forms was disinclined to stop. I therefore undertook to pay a ‘SUBMISSION FEE’ OF £400, thinking that it was pre-payment of tax that I might have to pay in due course.

The 2nd SUBMISSION FEE was £150.

O! And there’s no way back – the contract is instantaneous. Barclaycard have no redress against the merchant. Also I haven’t heard from ‘them’ whether my tax return has been submitted to HMRC or not, which is very unsettling.

As always, the lesson is BUYER BEWARE (Caveat Emptor) ……..!

Hi John See my earlier reply – I was stung for £400 too, but the good news is that the tax return was submitted to HMRC – http://www.taxreturngateway.com takes 72 hours to process, but you should get an email confirming submission. HRMC is aware and sadly we’re not the only ones to have been duped. I too thought that the £400 was pre-payment of tax 🙁

Even they have … We are not connected to or affiliated with HMRC, DWP or any other official government body. We offer a bespoke, value for money, tax return assistance service for which we levy a charge. You may submit your tax return directly to HMRC at no charge, without the benefits of our services, by visiting the official website

somewhere on their website.

They also have an 0871 helpline number, I wonder if these sites will have to stop using them. Somehow I doubt it

Colin says:
24 January 2014

I have recently fallen for the Passport scam (www.passport-uk.co.uk) and lost my £69. Strangely, I was convinced at the time that I was on the Government site and that I had got my passport at a premium price. A visit to a Post Office disabused me!