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Trading Standards: beware new copycat website tricks

The owl and the copycat

A lot of action has been taken against copycat websites that mimic official government services. But they’re not giving up that easy. Here’s Mike Andrews of National Trading Standards on the latest copycat tricks.

The problem of copycat websites has been in sharp focus over the last month thanks to the work done by Which?, the Government Digital Service and National Trading Standards.

It’s certainly the case that more of us are aware of the issue than before, as well as knowing what to do to avoid being caught out. However, this has led some copycat websites to change the ways they lure you into the scam.

Copycat website tricks

Although copycat operators are still using search engines to entice people looking for government services online, here at the National Trading Standards eCrime Team we’re monitoring the techniques being used. Lately we’ve seen a re-emergence of two techniques in particular:

• Those that lure people into buying cheap extras, such as a newsletter when you’re applying for a driving licence. However, this quickly turns into a monthly debit or credit card payment at a higher price, which you didn’t originally agree to. What do you get for their money? A low quality newsletter.
• Those that advertise official government service helplines, but then charge premium rates for calling those helplines which if called directly would either be free or low cost.

The first variant hopes to get your direct debit authorisation, which is then used to regularly tap your account for larger sums with not much in return for your payment.

Premium rate numbers

Here at the National Trading Standards eCrime Team we managed to trigger the second variant with a simple search for a fishing licence – which served up an ad at the top of the search engine results page offering 24/7 phone support. The ad actually links to a landing page with a number which essentially puts you through to the Environment Agency’s own phone number, but charges you a premium rate for doing so.

It’s not surprising that copycat operators use this technique, given the popularity of fishing – one of the most popular hobbies in the UK. Copycat fishing rod licence applications were clearly very lucrative to them in the past, when they could buy ads on search engines without them coming under scrutiny in the way they do now.

You can avoid this problem by searching for official government service helplines on WWW.GOV.UK. However, you need to be careful when searching for utility service helpline numbers such as gas, electricity, phone, internet etc., as you can only do this using a search engine, which might still land you on a site that advertises the premium rate phone numbers.

Avoid copycat websites

We will continue to take action against copycat websites, but if you are looking for government services online the best way to avoid any of these scams is to steer clear of using popular search engines to find them. Go straight to WWW.GOV.UK and search there instead. That way you can be sure to find what you are looking for, without being scammed.

If you want to prevent any of your friends or relatives from falling victim to any copycats please share this post and the below video:

Have you been fooled by a copycat website, or spotted one you want others to look out for? Tell us all about it.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Mike Andrews, National eCrime Co-ordinator at the National Trading Standards eCrime Team. All opinions expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of Which?.

Comments
Member

There’s a whole industry out there to rip-off the less computer savvy.

Are you including those websites which claim to offer a directory services service. They will list govt, banks airlines etc customer service numbers, but not the actual number, they will list all the numbers as premium 0843/087x numbers and route you to the often now free correct number.

I’ve managed to find around a dozen of these websites one even has a facebook book page.

Just google dvla contact number and see how many none 0300 numbers get shown, oh and the correct dvla entry has no number listed!!!!!!!!!

And what’s being done to massively increase any fines that get levied against the people running these things. Only last week one guy generating half a milllion ppi texts from a call centre in India was fined only £4,000 . You can understand why people undertake this sort of nasty practice, punishments if indeed they ever get caught are trivial. That guyshould have been jailed for 10 years with a min of £500k fine to cover the cost .

Member

William

You are absolutely correct to point out the issue of premium rate numbers diverting consumers to official helplines, which is something that we’ve highlighted in our article. This is very much an issue we are aware of and we will be working hard to clamp down on this alongside our work on ‘copycat’ web sites.

Mike

Member

Mike, That’s excellent news.

Member
Ian Lithgow says:
30 July 2014

My wife, a senior citizen, received a DVLA communication inviting her to renew her driving licence (due October 2014 and free because of her age). It looked genuine, but we were puzzled by mis-spellings (‘recieve’ and ‘license’ instead of ‘receive’ and ‘licence’ Thinking that it would be quicker, she chose not to fill in and post the enclosed notice/form, but decided to do so on line and phoned the number quoted on the DVLA form. When the on-line form was completed, the computer screen showed a summary of her input and invited confirmation. This was accompanied by a message (my words) ‘DVLA – free’ and ‘Administration charge – £83’. She stopped immediately, and she will post the form. We still believe the initial communication was genuine, so how has this scam arisen ? And what is the DVLA doing about this sort of thing ?

Member

What was the website quoted on the initial communication? and use dot instead the actual .

So this page would be conversation dot which dot co dot uk

And the phone number was it an 0300 number?

Member
Mary says:
30 July 2014
Member
Les Wills says:
3 August 2014

I am also a senior citizen and like your good wife I was invited to renew my driving licence, which was due on 7 September 2014. It was suggested that to do it on line would save paper. Taking the view “better late than never”, I took action. The transaction cost me £84, and it was only days later that I realised it should have been free of charge. The other disturbing point was that the licence, when received, was dated from 1 July 2014. I queried this with DVLA who informed me that it was because I had made my submission early. Having done a little research into this obvious scam, it has been suggested that the DVLA themselves have contributed to this by providing the details to these unscrupulous websites. The following website contains this suggestion http://www.sundaypost.com/news-views/uk/warning-over-driving-licence-website-scam-1.162908

It is surely disturbing that if this is correct, personal information of this nature is being passed to scam websites. I have always held the view that if you visit a gov.org website it must be genuine. This is a lesson learned and I will not complete any applications of any nature on line. Once again this appears to be a case of exploiting the elderly and surely must be looked at by Trading Standards.

Member

Question for any Which staff on at the moment. Is it okay to do a chargeback against these kind of scam companies, or would that be bad?

What can people do to get their money back?