Crafty online fees: How to spot the fakes
Misleading websites are charging for services that the Goverment offers citizens for free.
Saturday 13 August 2011
As disposable income is continually stretched, the last thing we need is to be charged for products and services that we should be entitled to for free. But the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has begun a huge investigation into firms that charge people for services they can get free from the Government or other organisations that are, it says, in breachof consumer protection laws.
Action was taken after reports that a number of unnamed companies were deceiving customers by setting up websites designed to look like official government sites and asking consumers to pay for otherwise free services, duping members of the public into forking out unnecessarily.
Presenting a commercial website as if it is an official government service is deemed to be an unfair commercial service, and the OFT has powers to shut such operations down. But such activity seems rife.
A quick Google search for the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) shows a number of Google-sponsored links to websites that charge for an EHIC, although it can be obtained for free from the NHS.
For example, www.e111-heathcard.org charges a "processing fee" of £14.99 for an EHIC while www.healthcardeu.org charges £9.95. However, both websites do clearly state that the card can be obtained free from the NHS. The government website for EHICs is www.ehic.org.uk or you can call the NHS on 0845 606 2030. Critics say the websites attempt to look like genuine Government websites, using ".org" web addresses to lead consumers into thinking they are dealing with an official site.
Unfair and misleading business practices are prohibited by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. The regulations are enforceable through the civil and criminal courts.
Another area the OFT is looking into is driving theory tests. Candidates are charged £31 to book their test through official channels but there are a handful of websites that charge a higher fee for "extra services". Cavendish Elithorn, the senior director of the OFT's goods and consumer group, says: "It is important that companies are clear about the service they are offering and do not trick people into paying for something that they can get for free or much cheaper on Government websites.
"We will be considering whether any of the sites under investigation are misleading consumers. With summer holidays approaching, many people will be making applications for EHICs in particular, so we encourage travellers to take time to check that they are using an official Government website."
But this is not a new problem. In 2010 the OFT investigated five websites that allegedly charged people for EHICs applications. Consumers and representatives from government departments, including the Department of Health and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), had complained that the fee charging sites looked official.
Jonathan Cornell's elderly mother paid £9 for an EHIC after using Google to find out how to get the card, which enables Britons to get free state emergency healthcare within the EU. "It is disgraceful, borderline fraud," he says. "It's just taking advantage of naïve people. I think search engines also have a role in stopping this disgrace."
Three websites were found to have breached the unfair trading regulations. They have since signed undertakings to make clear to users that they were not the official websites for EHICs applications. Another website shut down after the OFT asked for more information about it.
Gemma Bowen, the head of Consumer Focus Investigations, welcomes the latest move by the OFT after finding numerous examples in which websites that are listed prominently on popular search engines did not necessarily offer the best deal.
"Consumers can end up paying significant charges for services that are available for free and the OFT must establish what further action can be taken to protect consumers from wasting their money," says Ms Bowen. "We would urge consumers to be search-engine savvy. Do not just take the first option a search engine gives you, particularly if the first option is a paid-for and highlighted advertisement."
So how can you be sure a service is genuine? As the official UK government website for citizens, Direct Gov does not charge extra fees for online services and, as a general rule, if Direct Gov includes a link to a site, you can trust that the site is genuine.
But the problem doesn't end there, according to Sue Edwards, the head of consumer policy at Citizens' Advice. "We certainly have evidence from our bureau network on charging for EHIC cards, and we have even seen some evidence about charging for child benefit applications.
"There are outfits that charge for welfare benefits advice, and which take a substantial percentage cut of backdated benefits if clients are awarded these – obviously a service we and some other independent advice providers offer for free.
"We also see quite a bit of evidence about claims management companies charging for complaints to the Financial Ombudsman Service, which you can do for free – and if you need help, the FOS can provide it."
Meanwhile, two airlines were criticised for starting to charge customers for using debit and credit cards just after the OFT and consumer rights group Which? called for an end to such fees. From 2 November, Swiss and Lufthansa will charge a £4.50 fee on all payment card bookings.
Richard Lloyd, the executive director of Which?, says: "It is unbelievable that two airlines have introduced these card fees just weeks after the OFT agreed with us that they are unfair and misleading."
Compare with the Independent: See how much you could save by switching credit cards. Compare now
Switching credit card just got a whole lot cheaper as Nationwide slashes cost of transferring a balance to 0 per cent deal
10 tips for taking out a personal loan
Investment Insider: Poundland may not be cheap when it floats
How to start your own internet business
Five ways to make money on the internet
- 1 Watch: The student election Macklemore parody that isn't completely awful - and all the others that are
- 2 Three-quarters of Britons are saying it wrong - the top ten most common mispronunciations
- 3 Son attacks Apple after it refuses to unlock his late mother’s iPad
- 4 Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
- 5 First Kiss video: Filmmaker gets 20 strangers to make out on YouTube with awkward results
Britain's top vet sparks controversy with call for ban on slashing animals' throats in 'ritual' slaughters for halal and kosher meat products
Exclusive: Impact of immigrants on British workers ‘negligible’
Katie Hopkins continues campaign to become Britain's most hated talking head with poorly timed Bob Crow tweet
Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
No EU referendum under Labour: Ed Miliband to reveal that vote on membership is ‘unlikely’ in next Parliament if party wins power
Ukraine crisis: Russia pledges to 'retaliate against sanctions' as Ukrainian president says Crimea vote will not be recognised
iJobs Money & Business
£45000 - £55000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Harrington Starr: One of the i...
£57000 - £77000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Top 10 Specialist...
£350 - £450 per day: Harrington Starr: Harrington Starr are currently working ...
£40000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Application Support - FIX protoco...
Day In a Page
A one-bedroom, luxury apartment with private gym and concierge service in Moorgate
A four-bedroom house in Hermitage Gardens with three reception rooms and landscaped gardens
A seven-bedroom Grade II-listed property with a separate self-contained apartment
A five-bedroom Victorian house with three reception rooms and galleried landing, £695,000
A six-bedroom farmhouse with five acres of land in a former cloth-making village
A secluded seven-bedroom detached house with large private garden, £490,000
A three-bedroom cottage overlooking Sarratt village green with open fires and solid oak floors
A three-bedroom maisonette flat in a Grade I-listed, Georgian townhouse in a sought-after location
A one-bedroom apartment located within a private gated development, north of Turnham Green
Look forward to a brighter future at two-bedroom Sunny Cottages, ideal for Londoners looking to downsize
A three-bedroom red-brick cottage with outbuildings and pretty gardens, £200,000
This three-bedroom flat within a former textile factory spans the corner of the fourth floor and has a balcony
A charming four-bedroom Oxfordshire cottage with oak floors and chunky-beamed ceilings, £465,000
A beautiful one-bed flat in a sought-after portered block, with access to Norland Square communal gardens
A one-bedroom flat within a Sixties school conversion with high-spec design and open-plan kitchen, close to Lambeth North Tube, £435,000
A 17th century four-bedroom house, with open fireplaces, cellar and pool, £600,000
A three-bedroom, coach house with luxury open-plan living space and contemporary breakfast bar
A newly refurbished one-bedroom flat in the heart of Mayfair, close to Grosvenor Square
A charming four-bedroom house overlooking Burleigh Square Park, close to Thorpe Bay
A three-bedroom farmhouse with a large inglenook fireplace and exposed beams
A boutique mews house, set around a central courtyard, with three bedrooms and a private roof terrace
A four-bedroom farm-conversion with three bathrooms and two reception rooms
A two-bedroom detached house with ensuite bathrooms and a sun-drenched decked terrace, £750,000
A modern and spacious two-bedroom, penthouse flat with two bathrooms in a prestigious development
A beautifully renovated five-bedroom terrace with three reception rooms and a courtyard garden, £700,000
A four-bedroom period house which has been extended to provide almost 2,500sq ft of living space, £675,000
A pretty three-bedroom Georgian home with a 22ft drawing room and a master suite with a balcony, £525,000
A substanstial family home with five bedrooms and landscaped gardens in the much sought-after Branksome Park area
A well-presented three-bedroom house with front and rear gardens, close to White City station, £475,000
A handsome five-bedroom house in a sought-after location close to the city centre
A five-bedroom country home with valley views, equestrian stables and 27 acres of land, £725,000
A six-bedroom farm house with separate, detached cottages and 371 acres of land
A two-bedroom cottage with parquet floors, chunky beams and an open fireplace
A three-bedrrom flat with 2,733sq feet of living space, a beautiful private garden and 15 acres of communal grounds
A four-bedroom chalet bungalow with three bathrooms and a spacious garden, £525,000
A two-bedroom flat with an open plan kitchen and two balconies, close to Arsenal station
A Grade II-listed home with six bedrooms, secluded landscaped gardens and views across Hadley Green
A Grade II-listed mansion with two apartments and a cottage, near Gretna Green
A three-bedroom Grade II-listed mews house with vaulted ceilings and roof garden
A spacious Grade II-listed family home with annexe and equestrian facilities among four acres of land in Itchingfield