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Google: what we’ve done to crackdown on copycat websites

Copycat websites

We’ve heard you loud and clear – you hate copycat sites that mimic official government services. Many of these appeared in Google ad results, so here’s Theo Bertram from Google sharing how they’ve taken action.

Q. What has Google done to help people avoid copycat websites?

We have a strict set of policies which govern what ads we do and do not allow on Google. We don’t allow adverts for sites that simply copy Government or official services and provide no additional value.

It’s not just the ad itself that needs to comply with our policies but the landing page too. This is the webpage users are directed to once they click on an ad. The landing page must state whether or not they are affiliated with the official source (for example the UK Passport Office or HMRC) and should also make clear that the products, services or forms are available from the official source at lower cost or for free. The site must also describe the additional services they offer that are otherwise unavailable from the government, official source or free source.

They also need to set out clearly exactly what it is they are selling. If they provide little or no additional value to the user beyond the original or official online or automated application process then we will remove the ad.

We work hard to constantly review the ads showing on Google and make sure that they are abiding by our policies.

Q. Who have you been working with to make this a reality?

We’ve been working closely with the Government Digital Service and Transport for London. They have been giving us detailed information clarifying what is or isn’t currently provided by the official services. This has helped us to identify which sites are genuinely offering real value and which are not. We have taken action against those sites that are offering no additional value by removing them from our ad results, including copycat passport, tax return and London congestion charge websites.

Q. What’s next to stop these sites reappearing?

We will continue monitoring the categories of ads that we’ve been working on and reviewing with Government Digital Service and Transport for London. If similar sites appear we will remove them too.

Q. What would you like people to do?

Education and awareness is key and articles like the one Which? have written with advice on spotting copycat websites are incredibly helpful. If you spot misleading ads on Google, you should report them here. We will then investigate and take necessary action.

Have you been affected by copycat websites? Would you like other search engines to follow Google’s lead?

This is a guest post from Theo Bertram, Google’s Head of Policy.


Thanks for these very positive comments, Theo.

Google has been experimenting with yellow ‘Ad’ labels that make advertising links very clear. Please could we have these a permanent feature.

I believe that copycat websites should on their homepage be required to make it clear that (1) they are not the official site, and (2) give an honest statement of what significant benefits their service offers.

Hi all, more news to share with you on this. The Cabinet Office has also confirmed the government’s work on this, announcing today that it’s working with search engines, including Google, the Advertising Standards Agency and us at Which? to tackle the problem of copycat websites.

The Government has also pledged to give the National Trading Standards Board (NTSB) an additional £120,000 to identify, investigate and take enforcement action against any examples of misleading websites that pass themselves off as official government services.

A framework has been drawn up so that search engines can identify and take action against websites that add little or no value to existing online government services. http://www.which.co.uk/news/2014/03/crackdown-on-copycat-websites-357409/

Here’s a page the government has set up to report misleading sites to search engines:

And while we of course welcome today’s announcement, our executive director Richard Lloyd said:

‘For too long copycat websites have got away with misleading consumers into paying potentially hundreds of pounds for services that should be free. There must be an immediate crackdown on copycat websites, along with a review of legislation and any offending sites immediately removed from the internet.’

I too would like to see google ads made much clearly, The faint default coloured box on my Google Chrome browser is almost impossible to detect

I see the coloured background clearly on Chrome, Safari and Firefox (all Mac versions).

What I have just discovered is that at the time of writing, yellow Ad labels are appearing on Google searches done on Firefox but not on Chrome or Safari.

The VERY feint background colour is extremely difficult to see, deliberately so. That is the source of the problem. Such scams pay search engines to put their ads at the top of the list for particular searches, barely distinguishable from the real search results below. Google is not a search engine; it is a covert advertising machine. They don’t want the covert to be uncovert, so it could be an interesting development. Do the yellow flags appear only in the UK does anyone know?

BTW, the yellow signs come and go on Firefox, too. The do help and want introducing now across the board including other browsers. Interesting that they’ve chosen Firefox first, not their own browser. Perhaps they realise that Firefox users are not the suckers that think Google, Chrome, Apple and Safari are the best things since microchips.

Peter and William

Please could you compare looking at your screens at an angle to see if this makes any difference to the faint background colour. Even though flat screens have improved, they are still somewhat directional. I discovered by accident that if I look down on my laptop screen rather than straight at it I can make the background colour on the ads look very faint, whereas normally it is very obvious.

I’m sure you are right that Google are not keen for us to spot adverts, Peter. I avoid them because clicking on them is making money for someone.

Yes the ad box is much easier to spot if am at an angle less than 45 degrees

Thanks William. I wonder if Google might be exploiting the weaknesses of flat-screen displays.

I have been trying to understand the why one browser should display the conspicuous yellow ‘Ad’ label and another should have the coloured background that may or may not be obvious. I think I understand but am not confident enough to post an explanation. On the basis that you have commented on how reviews can be manipulated with a few lines of HTML, I hope you might be able to explain why how this happens.

Reading human written HTML is alot easier to understand than machine written HTML, people tend to use meaningful labels for things, machines don’t. So don’t expect anything anytime soon.

I appreciate the problem. I could cope with HTML when I set up my first website in 1995 but have little clue about the code that Dreamweaver churns out. If Google continue to play with switching between coloured backgrounds and yellow Ad labels I expect this will invite attention and explanation of how browsers behave differently.

Very commendable. But the question I’m left with is this – : How do these misleading ads get to appear on Google in the first place? And why is it necessary to allow the promotion of added value services at all?

Anyone who advertises with Google Adwords knows that potential adverts have to be approved before they appear. And that ads only appear in response to selected keywords in the search string. So why were these ads approved? And why are keywords for official government documents like “passport”, “visa” and “license” permitted? Wouldn’t it me much simpler to prevent the use of these keywords, rather than police the ads?

Secondly, the advertiser sets a budget. Once the ads have been displayed or clicked on sufficient times to exhaust the budgeted amount, the ads cease to appear until the advertising budget is refreshed.

So there is little justification to allow advertising of sites that provide “additional value” services, since only a subset of Google search engine users will be made aware of them. The intention of these ads is simply to divert users away from the free services available to all, until the advertiser has creamed off their quota for the day. Whether they can justify their additional fees or not seems irrelevant to me.

My ISP is MSN so Bing is the default search-engine. I have just checked the top few entries for “passport renewal”. The top two are now for the official GOV.UK site. The third entry is for “passports-uk(.co.uk) and the blurb underneath the entry says:”Passport application service UK ……”. The landing page is headed PASSPORT UK [note use of the singular form unlike its URL]. It starts with the following quotation : “Every year, 250,000 passport applications (over 10% of application forms sent by post) get rejected or delayed because of simple mistakes.” * Source: direct.gov.uk “. Quoting the official government website could be held to be misleading. It continues “Complete your passport application or renewal online. A similar checking service can be obtained from a Post Office at a reduced fee or you can apply without a checking service where there will be no checking fee payable. We are not affiliated with Post Office, HMPO or any government body.” I think the use of the words “complete your … application … on-line” is not accurate because it makes it quite clear later that you cannot actually complete the process until HMPO have the application form that has been forwarded to them [after ‘checking’] by passports-uk. Indeed, once you go on to the next stage, they say “When the process is complete [!], HM Passport Office will transfer the information provided onto specially adapted forms and return it to you in a hardcopy format. You will receive these pre-printed forms by post and will need to sign and date them prior to returning them to HM Passport Office for further processing.” This is misleading by omission: it does not state that, as part of this ‘further processing’, you would then have to make a payment to HMPO before a new passport could be issued. To cover itself, passports-uk says : “Our services are not in any way affiliated with any UK Government body including HM Passport Office. We provide a reviewing and submitting service for all UK passport applications charging a service processing fee. You can apply autonomously to HM Passport Office, avoiding costs for checking and processing, by logging on to their authorised website.” It does set out quite prominently what services they provide contrasted with what HMPO does [but still no mention of a fee]. The landing page also has a click button clearly positioned at the top linking to the HMPO website.

This all seems to be a step in the right direction although there are still several shortcomings as I have indicated. I think the outcry generated by the wicked Which? and the media have brought this about so congratulations are due. Unfortunately, lots of people have said goodbye to loads of money and I expect they’ll never see it again. It might be argued that in the present climate of free enterprise and un-regulation this outcome is about as good as we”ll get but I hope Which? will keep the pressure on in the furher work that Theo and Patrick hav referred to – especially to ensure that there are no breaches of the Consumer Protection Regulations in the absence of any more specific controls. I have been looking at just one website via only one search-engine – there are other search-engines and lots of other websites that are masquerading as official channels.This is certainly not over yet.

It is very good to see the genuine sites at the top of the search list, and that they are clearly marked GOV.UK.

Though I have never looked at a copycat site until Which? alerted me to the problem, it does concern me how many people are innocent victims. If we cannot get rid of these sites then perhaps there should be a conspicuous warning, equivalent to what is normal on ATMs that charge a fee: ‘This cash dispenser will charge you for withdrawals’.

Phytos Perdios says:
17 April 2014

I have a pending case with this Company (Passport-UK.co.uk)
My wife mistook this site as the real HMPO and ‘applied’ for a new Passport. She paid £69 with MY Credit Card.
When I had a look at the site, after she filled in the online appliction herself and, when on coming home, I read the info. they provide, I thought it as boardering on the margins of legality, I accepted that my wife made a mistake and she contracted with them and ‘signed’ and accepted their conditions.
However, what got on my stomach was their condition that there is no cooling off period and, once the application had been sent to them, it would be of immediate processing, within 24 hours to be dispatched to HMPO, who would then, within 48 hours return a hard coppy to my wife to sign and send back (to HMPO), although I emailed her wish to cancel, about 5 hours after she sent the online application to them(Passport-UK(.co.uk).I tried to speak to them the next morning, on the phone they provide, but could not speak to anybody. We new it was then a sham and, in our despair of what she did, we discovered an Internet Forum of similarly ‘taken in'(allegedly) people, with 1703 posts, 105 of which we read and were all complaining about this Company.
We then waited and when no word from the Company came and nothing from HMPO, either, for days after, I telephoned the Passport Office and was told there was NO application pending with my wife’s name. That’s when I wrote to my Bank and asked for the money back, on the premise that the Company did not deliver what they were contracted for. All this proceedure took 6 (six) months, for my Bank to write back to me, that they communicated with The Company who admitted they did not send my wife’s application to HMPO, reason given, ‘awaiting further information from client’, and would be happy to submit that application my wife made, on receiving the required information. At no time did they intimate us of that and only heard of that from a third party, and we would not have known there was ‘mssing’ information or what information was lacking and only heard about that from my Bank. In the meantime my Bank re-DEBITED my A/c with that £69.
I consider that excuse offered by The Company a poor excuse and, to me, it is not true. If they were a bona fide Company they had ALL my wife’s information to have alerted us, in no uncertain terms and repeatedly until they would get the ‘missing’ info., tell us all about the delay we have caused and, if needed, I would have compensated them for that trouble. They did not. So I am demanding the return of the fee paid to them, for non delivering any service whatsoever.
Also, under the condition of no refund because of ‘immediate processing’ they do say that, the fee would only be refunded if they do not deliver the service. Which they did not in my wife’s case.
I wrote this to my Bank, on escalation of my original claim, and hope that they will RE-CREDIT that fee. I am awaiting!!!

Although if you search for EHIC, the top 2 are hard to detect ads, ahead of the official none GOV.UK site.

The Govt really should add a www dot NHS dot GOV dot UK , it wouldn’t take a couple of minutes to do and they can just route it to the NHS.UK site.

I frequently use copycat when researching limited companies. They are to be avoided if ordering documents as the mark-up on Companies House charges can be significant, The online information is often better presented than on the official site

It might be useful to have comparison website reveiw official and copycat sites so that we can use them on a horses-for-courses basis.

Education I think is a must, as reading the comments on


it would appear many have a very very limited knowledge of the internet, and as we all know a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Things to cover in no particular order are:

1) Check the search results for ads, and be aware that even scammers can have ads, and they’re more likely to pay for ads than a government department.

2) The order of the web results shouldn’t be taken as top is best, always scan down the list.

3) Not all government sites end in .GOV.UK (e.g the nhs.uk )

4) Star ratings can be duped, so take them with a pinch of salt. It just rakes 5 lines of html on a webpage to get star ratings on a search result.

5) https just means that communication between your browser/smart phone/tablet etc and the website your connecting to is secure. It doesn’t imply that site is legit.

6) Take time to read all the small print.

7) Is a scamming website likely to name itself as such? No. Names of websites are chosen to draw in people, they cost next to nothing a year, The name is no guarantee of anything.
royalfamily dot co uk is actually owned Associated Newspapers Limited and not HRH Queen Elizabeth.

8) Its not just government sites that can be copycat, any site that offers a paid service can have a copycat site. And as the govt copycats are shut down the none govt ones are more likely to flourish.

9) Check the spelling of the website, its easy to replace an l with a 1, an O with an 0 and same scam sites use that fact to dupe you into thinking you’ve gone to the right site.

I’m sure there are other things I could add too, but I guess those are the obvious ones.

Heather Minor says:
7 March 2014

I lost money to taxreturngateway earlier this year. I’ve been refused a refund several times by Who4 (the company that runs many of these sites). My local MP Caroline Lucas and Jeff Prestridge at This Is Money are both backing my campaign to shut the websites down and find compensation for the customers who were duped into using the sites.

If you agree that these companies should be forced to stop operating please sign this petition http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/61886

It’s worth noting that several of these sites have changed drastically in appearance since the started being featured in the media. When I used the fake tax site the information about it not being official was hidden at the bottom of the home page.

kieran howell says:
7 March 2014

Would any of you be willing to sign this petition to ban or regulate Non Official Check & Send services.


I have contacted CAB (who have already replied and will be circulating this across UK network), OFT, Money Saving Expert, Post Office, HMPO, DVLA and Watchdog for support

If you feel like signing maybe you would know others (family, friends, etc.) that would sign also, we need to make a stand against this sort of behaviour.

There are still no such warnings on any of the 3 top picks for Land Registry sites searched in Google, each of which are spoof sites.
The official Land Registry site Land Registry.gov.uk comes a lowly 3rd or 4th. down the rankings.
Google still are not doing anything to crack down as far as I can see.

Whilst you’re talking about the Land registry, nice little service I found today, you can sign up for property alerts …


Phytos Perdios says:
24 March 2014

My wife, an Eastern European, was duped into using ‘Passport-uk.co.uk, for issue of a new passport and had paid £69 for that, thinking it was the Passport Office themselves. She gave ALL her personal info. required for a passport, bank A/c etc. and paid with MY Visa card. I wanted to let her do all the ‘form filling’, so she gets to know the ropes involved without my help. She completed the payment and I looked at all she did myself, after she finished, not to give her the impression I did not trust her. To my horror I saw the trap she fell in and I wrote 2 emails to Passport-uk.co.uk to cancel the application, although they stipulate that, because the application is for ‘immediate processing’ the right to the cooling off period for refund is lost. They gave a tel. No., which I rang to receive a voice box saying I should email them for any amendments.
I realised, now, the scam was complete! I googled to find out anything on them and found a site, where people who had the same experience as my wife, were writing their comments. There were, at that time, 1703 disgruntled people with this site, who lost various amounts of money.
I reported the incident to the Passport Office and to Which? where, of course, I found out this scam site is well known to them.
However, I did not rest on my laurels. I waited for 2/3 wks. for any forms to arrive from Passport-uk.co.uk but nothing did come. I waited further and eventually wrote to my Card issuer asking them to investigate and refund my money. 4/5 wks. after that my bank A/c WAS CREDITED with the amount I paid (£69) to Passport-uk.co.uk. My defence? I never received the goods(application forms) promised by the recipients of the payment. However, despite, at least, getting the money back, my wife is dead worried about all the information this scammer is holding on her.
Thank you Which? for taking these scammers on, on our behalf.

Some progress … http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/consumertips/10765909/Google-bans-copycat-websites.html

And I’ve even reported one ad, wonder how many more I can find …

kieran howell says:
18 April 2014

I was caught out by one of these and was so annoyed and amazed.
My research showed how common this is and I decided to do something about it. I contacted the House of Commons to get approval for a Gov’t. Petition and thought the 100k signatures would be a challenge but with some exposure would be possible.

I contacted senior people at OFT, CAB, DVLA, Passport Office, Royal Mail, Which, MSE, Watchdog and local media. I had one response – the Head of Policy at CAB that agreed to circulate around UK network but I didn’t see the expected surge in signatures. I contacted them again to check when they would circulate it but they didn’t reply and I have contacted all the other places again with no response.

I wonder why this has been so hard? I wonder why these places are not interested in doing more about this growing issue.

Would any of you be willing to sign this petition to ban or regulate Non Official Check & Send services.


If you feel like signing maybe you would know others (family, friends, etc.) that would sign also, we need to make a stand against this sort of behaviour.

Wilfrid Stoddart says:
28 November 2014

Just been caught by Australian Visitors Visa Sights.