/ Technology, Travel & Leisure

Crackdown on sites masquerading as government services

Hand with 'do not copy'

More than 200 comments have been made on our Conversation about copycat websites. These misleading websites have left some of you up to £1,000 out of pocket. The good news is that something is being done.

Which? Convo commenter Angela told us about how she was duped by a copycat website:

‘I have just been caught by Tax Return Gateway, so was my husband. We have paid out £1,000 to them unwittingly as we believed we were logged onto HMRC.’

We’ve been working behind the scenes, sharing your complaints with the Government to convince them to take action. It’s now been announced that these sites will face increased scrutiny, with Trading Standards being given an extra £120,000 to specifically crackdown on sites that ‘try and palm themselves off’ as government sites.

Consumer minister Jenny Willott said that such sites needed to be ‘stopped in their tracks’ and that this money will better equip Trading Standards to identify, investigate and take enforcement action. It was also announced that the Government will continue to work with the Advertising Standards Authority, search engines and us at Which? to raise awareness of the threat posed by misleading sites.

Search engines and copycat sites

Claire is another commenter who was duped, paying extra to renew her European Health Insurance Card (EHIC):

‘I am still so, so mad with myself. I am usually very savvy. However, I 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!!!’

Tracy was fooled into paying £116.50 extra:

‘Ashamed and enraged to say I’ve been duped this month by uk-passport.net for £116.50! Looked online to renew my passport and apply for my son’s first passport. Clicked on a link on my tablet from Google to do so and was taken to what I assumed was an official page, even cites the official phone number as ‘contact us’. Applied and paid for both passports (stupidly). I am gutted and annoyed with myself for being so stupid to fall for this. I’m usually so vigilant!!’

As far as people finding copycat sites high up on search results, Google has already taken action, with their head of policy Theo Bertram explaining what they’re doing to remove copycat sites from ad results in a guest post here on Which? Convo.

Thanks to all of you who shared your experiences with us. We now want to see an immediate crackdown on copycat sites, along with a review of legislation and any offending sites immediately removed from the internet.


Would I be right in thinking that no where has the government offered money to educate the masses, into how to safely and sensibly use the internet?

Maybe ISPs ( and I’m including smart phone/tablet sellers in that too), could be persuaded into adding a handy check list of things to look out for and things to avoid.

I can’t imagine it would take much effort to come up with a handy checklist that could be used for everyone. And maybe it could be called Safer Smarter Surfing.

Rosie8 says:
6 March 2014

I am delighted that Which has investigated the problem of copycat websites. I have just googled HMRC and was pleased to see that only the official site appeared. However when I googled renew passport passportapply.co.uk/‎ and passports.gb.com/Renew-Passport‎ appeared, which both looked suspicious to me.

If you look closely at those “suspicious” sites you’ll see they’re actually ads. And one complaint leveled at google and other search engines is that on some browsers on some machines, ads are almost impossible to detect

ClydeSkin says:
7 March 2014

Very few people need or want to submit their tax return at this time of year. So I guess that the unofficial sites have dropped their advertising. They will be back at peak times – particularly January each year.

It’s not just the obvious sites that are spoofed. If you are a homeowner and want to check your title etc, then go to Land Registry. However, the first three picks on Google are all spoof sites charging you fees and conning you out of money. The sites look authentic, but they are not.
The authentic site will have gov.uk on the end of it’s address and most searches are free.
Even Guardian Money were not aware until I alerted them.

Andrea M says:
7 March 2014

I am glad something is being done. I am normally really vigilant on these things, but I was in the middle of something and my husband asked if I could do his tax return. I googles the site and as the Tax return Gateway site was at the top I clicked on it. It even looked like the HRMC website. I continued on. I was a bit unsure when they asked for payment upfront, but I could see nothing when I looked to suggest it wasn’t valid.

I emailed the company afterwards and they said that their website was explicity clear that they were not the HRMC. I beg to differ, as although I was in a rush I would have noticed if there had been a large health warning on the site and I would not have proceeded. When I went back to check what it did say the website was too busy!!

I was really annoyed with myself and them!!

Kennyeth says:
7 March 2014

I got duped by these.
They are still running there website, it does say at the bottom:
“the passport application service that we provide are not connected to or affiliated with the ips or any other official government body”
I didn`t realise until passport wrote and said they could not process until they receive money, after calling them to say I had paid they explained about the “scam”

ollie says:
26 March 2014

this website are still hoping to scam more people for GBP 73.50 for not doing any service!!

Chelliedude says:
7 March 2014

Hi. Not alone. First time ever got duped by europeanhealthcard.org.uk .

It does a good impression of a proper website. After I got the successful order emails I thought this is not a proper site!! Your contract with them cancels any comeback by use of online selling legislation. Paid for two cards that could get free on the proper website.

There should be a criminal law for this, in my opinion it amounts to theft of my money..

£120K – hopefully not a bigwig’s bloated salary to talk tough whilst knowing that the party treasurers won’t want the feathers ruffling of such entrepreneurial types. Announcement also seems at odds with current orthodoxy – very curious that the Minister didn’t say “What’s wrong? We’ve privatised BBC Audiobooks, BBC Magazines, the Fire Service College, Manchester Airports, Remploy, Royal Mail and The Tote and are nearly there with the NHS. These are just services run by incompetent civil servants, the few left that haven’t been handed over to Crapita or Sercon. Much better run by the private sector. Grow up now!”

I was caught out by http://www.TAX RETURN GATEWAY.com and paid a £400 submission fee. Is there any way I can get my money back from these con artists.

I got conned by wwwTAX RETURN GATEWAY.com out of £400 “submission fee” Does anybody know how I can get my money back from these conn artists..

TimBB says:
28 March 2014

I got scammed out of £49 to renew my EHIC. The website ehic-uk.org was the first on the list of a google search. Prompted by my wife I realised my mistake after a couple of hours and cancelled the order and requested a refund. The reply from the website was the Ts and Cs state the service operates immediately and had therefore already been provided so no refund. I thought English law gave a cooling off period of 5 days to cancel an order. Their website is designed to deceive. I am reporting them to trading standards.

I am a self employed freelancer.
I was online trying to submit my tax return.
I am new to being self employed and have not done an online tax return before. I googled submit your tax return online and followed the first link that Google provided me with.
The website made no reference to services provided per se there were merely links to follow to complete the tax return online. At no stage did I believe I was buying a service as this was never made clear from the link that I was following. The link merely said ‘complete your tax return.’ Not. Have your tax return checked before submission.

The website refers to itself as tax return portal which implies suggestion that the links followed are just that.

There were four stages which required personal information including tax codes and personal details. Including gross income and expenses.

I had done my own number crunching independently of an accountant and was not in need of my accounts being checked.

The final stage asks for five hundred pounds which I believed was an installation payment to my tax return as that is what stage one of the procedure implied. As I have never done a tax return before, as new to being self employed, I was unaware of what I was being duped into.

At no point did the web page suggest that I was buying a service.
It was only AFTER I received a confirmation email that I realised they there was something wrong.

I emailed back immediately and requested a refund. I also called my bank and requested they put a stop on my transaction. They said they couldn’t but to contact yet disputes team on Monday and then possibly the fraud team.

I went back to the website and looked at terms and conditions. These I found on ANOTHER website with a slightly different URL conferring the same name, minus the terms and conditions. T and c s were available directly on one site but not on the other. However re the page that does contain teens and conditions, appears on a smart phone beneath the main link which says ‘complete tax return.’ I reiterate. Not. ‘Have your tax return checked and approved for a fee.’

If the website was bona fide then why were the services not
Advertised transparently? the page that DOES contain terms and conditions where the ‘company’ exempts themselves from HMRC, etc, when displayed on I phone, but these are hidden well out of view,
and by proceeding with the ‘complete your tax return,’ route, you end up bypassing these. They do not appear on the smart phone screen. Who on a subconscious level thinks to look for terms and conditions when paying a tax bill, you just pay your bill and tick on.

Given that the portal on the screen that is available shows you a way to get started on your ‘tax return,’
you have no incentive to explore the site. It was not made clear until after the transaction was complete that the situation was requesting money for a service per se.

This information was kept cleverly out of view so that you remain none the wiser until parted with cash.
I Refund requested immediately but t and c says refunds not given. Money has been extorted under deception.

The traders terms and conditions regarding refunds for ‘services,’
are misleading.
One the one hand they say ‘ consumer’ (please note I did not part with cash under the premise if any trade agreement but was deliberately misled) can cancel the order within 14 days, but in the next sentence say they commence the order immediately and so refunds not accepted.

Are they working 24 hours a day?
In any that I wanted to cancel the order and I am waiting to get a reply.

Unfortunately they don’t make it clear what you have parted with your cash for is not as they allude to tax return money (this is what I thought), until after the transaction is complete.

The whole thing was deliberately misleading. I paid £500 for a service that I have no need for as I did my leg work myself, and now have to conceed that these cowboys exploit legal loopholes cleverly to sidestep legal definitions of fraud and deception.

£500 is a lot of money for nothing. They say they are checking and submitting my tax return but there’s actually nothing for them to do. They also mimic the .gov website on tax returns with a black overhead and white bold words so it looks as though you are actually on the .gov website. And with that in mind, who is expecting their money to be going to some third party middle man.

Although terms and conditions are deliberately concealed out of view, when you finally do get to read them they are defensive and sidestepping all the way, even going so far to preempt ‘customer’ hostility.

Iv submitted my refund request.
Will take legal advice but something really needs to change here.
I would of read the terms and conditions but they didn’t appear on the link that I followed.

Meanwhile bank will deal with via disputes. Have tried to persuade company to let refund happen, otherwise will be taking to watchdog.

2 years on and all seems quiet – yet the ads are still out there – particularly the land registry. I nearly feel into the trap until I spotted the prices! – So deciding to follow the trail of links through to the Gov site web page – the “simple form” to report this issue to google link on https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2014/03/02/report-a-misleading-website-to-search-engines/ now directs one to a complicated Ad-words menu which has no option relevant to this problem (well it may have if I had time to read the entire adwords policy. I’ve slapped in a complaint under counterfeit goods for want of a better option.
Has the issue just been brushed under the carpet – it certainly has;t gone away!