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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?.


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 .

Mike, That’s excellent news.

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 ?

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?

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.

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?

TV does not feature much in my life but I feel that there is a real need for some public information broadcasting to help the public understand issues such as phishing, copycat websites, phone scams, etc. As William has said, some people are vulnerable to being cheated.

How about putting the video in the introduction on TV? Cringeworthy but memorable. 🙂

It’s a very good idea to use http://www.gov.uk as a portal through which official sites can be accessed.

Maybe Which? should run a simple campaign like they did with emailing the CEO of a mobile phone company.

This time the emails get fired off to BBC Watchdog, Sky news, BBC News etc.

I’ve already tried getting watchdog to cover the microsoft phone scam but a single email isn’t enough for them to bother with.

I think the campaign should also aim to get smart phone and tablets manufacturers to include a fact sheet warning people and showing how to use their devices safely.

Hi Mike. I do wish you success with the campaign. I was being a little provocative, but I genuinely believe that that it helps to use distinctive and unusual ways to get a message across. Think of the absurd mnemonics that can make it easy to remember information.

Perhaps one of our Conversation editors will fix the typo in one of your web addresses and maybe even add links.

Gill T. says:
19 August 2014

That is useful as the first thing that comes up if you go through that portal and put in DVLA is licence renewal, then clicking reaching 70 renewal the first comment is “This is free” and it can only be done online if you have a current passport, otherwise pick up a form at the PO it can take 3 weeks to receive.

The video is absolutely brilliant! Very clever of whoever thought of the poem!

The article mentions that the only way to get utility numbers is via a search engine. Are these numbers not on the utility company’s website, whose address can be typed directly?

What gets me really angry is that the most naïve and vulnerable are the most likely people to be victims. This is preying on the weak.

@Louis, the sad truth is most companies seem to have a real hatred of making it easy to find phone number on their websites. Long gone are the days of a simple contact us page with easily an visible number. If this wasn’t the case they’d be nothing to gain to promote your own premium rate numbers in an easily accessible format.

These days many companies will present you will a choice then another one so on and so forth before you get to an actual number. I’ve just tried to find a number for SSE, and it’s taken 3 presses of a mouse after reading large amounts of text to find where to click. Most of these shyster phone number sites will show a phone number in the google search results. Something many company will actively avoid doing.

dave wright says:
2 August 2014

Simple solution: stick to 0800 and 01, 02 and 03 numbers. If the number you want to contact isn’t one of those, go to http://www.saynoto0870.com/ and look up the alternative.

Marie-Louise says:
2 August 2014

On 22nd July I looked for a name of a neighbour who had recently moved in and was fly-tipping into my garden, so that I could write to him. I remembered that I could look at the title deeds at the land registry and did a google search. As I was quite upset and in a hurry, I did not notice that I did not get through to the land registry but to a company called LSS Limited, calling itself land registry service. I was charged what I thought of as quite a high fee: £29.98 for the title deed copy and a map. I found out later that I would indeed have paid £ 6.00 had I found the official website. Below is confirmation of paymentr I made to this company:
Instructions to merchant:
None provided
Dispatch information
Delivery method
Not specified
Description Unit price Qty Amount
Land Registry Search
£28.98 GBP 1 28.98 GBP

Total: £28.98 GBP
Receipt No: 0509-7765-1002-0242
Please keep this receipt number for future reference. You’ll need it if you contact customer service at LSS Limited or PayPal.
Invoice ID:13695

Peter says:
2 August 2014

Blame Google. These scammers end up high on Google due to SEO. Google should punish the scammers by removing them from their top list.

It should not be possible for any company to use an .org.uk email address!

I agree that regulation is needed but as it stands, internet services are not regulated as well as we might hope for. You could get an org.uk domain and many others with matching email addresses very easily. Thankfully, you won’t get a gov.uk address.

In 1995 I received an unexpected offer of having a website for a charity on the local town council website. I maintained the site for years before getting our own domain, but it never seemed right that the council allowed me access to an official website. I could have altered anything and once accidentally deleted one of their pages.

There are ways to ‘spoof’ email addresses, so that if you reply to an email that looks OK it could be diverted elsewhere.

@wavechange, the fact you could access anything on the councils website is the fault for their IT administrators. Admittedly it is more work for them to give out limited access, but as the saying goes if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.

I’m always annoyed when I get an email with an offer that has came from a companies outsourced mailshot service, as they always route via they’re own websites and never through the originating companies. The link will say its one thing, but its actually routed somewhere else, which is exactly how fraudsters manage to catch people out.

I agree William. At the time the town council website was run by an external IT specialist, who got me started and ensured I knew what I was doing before giving me access. It was the council that made the offer, so it was all above board. I don’t think they appreciated the risks at the time. Eventually the town council website became part of a county council one and that seemed a good time to go my own way.

One of my former colleagues who had a fascination for computer security gave me an insight into some of the security issues involving the internet and networked computers. It was a real eye opener.

Wavechange / William,

Is there a way of telling in advance that you are being rerouted to somewhere you did not expect, and therefore of not going ahead in this case?

If you’re using a smart phone or tablet then I don’t believe there is. PC or Mac then you just hover the mouse over the link and look at the tooltip.

I used to use email software that allowed you to view the headers and check that the return email address corresponded with the one used to send the email. For a reason I won’t explain I’m using Outlook and I don’t know how to display mail headers.

I am reluctant to reply to emails that might be a scam. I have sometimes gone to the organisation’s website to find an email address and replied to this. Nowadays the problem is that many organisations don’t provide an email address, just a web form.

I hope William is right and I’m worrying unnecessarily.

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.

barry fitt says:
20 July 2021

I also fell foul of these utter lowlifes–mimicking the dvla website and had the £80 extracted from my account –despite–on a Sunday afternoon /evening ,when DVLA are not working anyway– canceling the transaction within 1-1-1/2 hours later –and immediately contacting Metro bank to request that the payment not be made following its being held as pending -=-they were less use than a chocolate fireguard to be honest –plenty of soothing words and promises of help but in reality it was almost as if they were in on the whole scam–and the impression given was as if I was a complete fool to have been sucked in by a cunningly designed site manufactured for the purpose of catching the unwary until its too late, by not revealing any cost incurred until after card/ bank details are provided in the ID part of the form—-they all work from accommodation addresses so actually tracing anyone is made pretty near impossible –no doubt to prevent the lowlifes getting on the end of the right hander they so richly deserve–company registration is no good as they’re not registered — and yet still google allow them to operate an obvious scam perfectly openly and as if they’re legitimate businesses –can anyone let me have googles GB address????, as I think they stand responsible for allowing the scam to operate with their acquiescence–whether due to neglect of site awareness or not ,they are still permitting the unwary and mostly vulnerable to become meat and drink for this form of pondlife, and as such have a responsibility to their customer base so must bear any costs accruing from their inactivity with regard to prevention of the commission of what is essentially fraud and I want to try taking them to court to find out

Barry – Which website did you use? And what words did you enter into the your browser to access the website?

All the non-DVLA websites that I have checked do have a disclaimer making it clear that they are not affiliated to the DVLA and that that they provide an application service for which a fee is payable.

I agree that these details are sometimes difficult to pick out, and that the design of some websites is intentionally deceptive, but the key is to ensure you are using a website address ending in GOV.UK.