Whether renewing your passport, buying a tourist visa or getting a European Health Insurance Card (Ehic), most of us use Google to help us find the right site. But what if you can’t trust the search results in front of you?
Copycat websites are designed to come up in searches for official or government-affiliated services. Some of them look like their official counterparts. Crucially, they charge much more for services you could get for less, or even for free.
The problem isn’t new. We first warned people about copycat Ehic sites back in April 2010, These sites charge £35 or more for a card that’s entirely free.
Since 2014, National Trading Standards (NTS) has been actively working with Google to tackle the problem of copycat websites, and some sites have been quickly dealt with.
In July, officials found copycats selling disabled Blue Badges – which should cost £12 – for more than £50. Fortunately, by October, none of the top 20 UK search results for ‘blue badge’, ‘disabled badge’ and ‘blue badge application’ returned any copycats.
However, our investigation found that other search results are still teeming with copycat websites for Ehic and travel visas.
We also found premium ‘call-forwarding services’ that come up when you’re searching for phone numbers online – some of which charged several pounds per minute to merely connect you to free numbers.
We’ve plotted 15 popular searches with high volumes of copycat results in the chart below:
Many of these sites don’t look like their official counterparts. However, they’re still catching consumers out.
We asked our members to pick the official site out of four options, three of which were copycat or unofficial sites. Despite being a savvy bunch, almost a third (29%) couldn’t. See how you’d do in our quiz:
Can you spot a copycat?
Copycat websites offer official products and services – but usually at a much higher cost. Can you pick the official website from our line-up?
Which is the official European Health Insurance Card (Ehic) renewal site?
Which is the official site for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (Esta, for entry to the US)?
Which is the official site for obtaining an Australian tourist visa?
Which is the official site for buying a Turkish visa?
Which of these is an official Land Registry site?
Which of these is the official Money Advice Service?
When we told Google about our research, it told us it’s looking into the problem.
NTS estimates that copycat sites have cost UK consumers tens of millions of pounds since 2014, and we want to hear from you.
Have you been misled by a copycat site? Do you still trust search engines to point you in the right direction, or do you always go to the site directly?