Searching for tax help online? Beware of results

The 31 January self-assessment deadline is rapidly approaching – but anyone seeking last-minute help from HM Revenue & Customs could be tricked into paying out for free information.

A directory services company has paid to hijack searches for "Tax helpline" or "HMRC helpline" via Google. The top listed paid-for link will not send you to an official site but to one which prominently displays the words "HMRC Helpline Number" next to a telephone number to call.

There are just days to go before the 31 January self-assessment deadline and those failing to file their return by then will pick up an automatic £100 fine. Anyone even slightly anxious about their tax affairs could easily find themselves calling the number listed on the website. But if they do they'll be charged £1.53 per minute plus network extras. If the call lasts longer than a minute, then they'll be charged by the second. Calls from mobiles, of course, will cost considerably more, although the costs aren't detailed on the site.

The company behind the listing is PRS Directory Services, which operates out of a mailbox based in central London. It also has paid-for links topping the Google listings for searches for such terms as "Child Benefit Helpline" and "Passport Helpline".

The company claims its sites are "clear and transparent" and "There is no attempt to mislead". But we're happy to help you save the cost of calling the firm by publishing HMRC's self-assessment helpline number: it's at 0845 900 0444.

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