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."