Google urged to remove copycat websites charging substantial fees for Government services from search rankings

Internet giant to take down sponsored adverts for sites that were not offering valid services including applications for passports and driving licences

Media Editor

Senior figures from Google’s UK headquarters have been summoned by ministers and advised to remove from search rankings the copycat websites which are charging substantial fees for Government services including applications for passports and driving licences.

Ministers have concerns that rogue sites – especially those dealing with tax returns and passport applications - are not only charging users for services which are of no added value but are collating personal data which may not be securely stored and could be used in identity theft fraud.

After talks with Communications minister Ed Vaizey, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd, Google has agreed to take down a number of sponsored adverts for sites that were not offering valid services. “Our objective is to ensure that people find legitimate government websites – particularly for tax, driving licences, passports and congestion charge – at the top of their search rankings rather than get diverted to sites that don’t add any value, cost them money and take their personal details,” said Mr Vaizey.

The Government decided to take action after the consumer rights group Which? reported a series of complaints that sites were using sponsored adverts to appear in searches and were masquerading as legitimate Government services, exaggerating what they could provide and deliberately underplaying the services that people can get for free or at lower cost from official sources.

One site, UK-Passport.net, was charging fees of £72.50 for a checking service that is available at the Post Office for £8.75. Another site, called passport.gb.com, was found to be welcoming users with the slogan “UK Passport Application Service”. Another site, britishpassportservices.co.uk, was using an online form that Which? described as being “extremely similar” to the official document.

 

Which? also received numerous complaints about the TaxReturnGateway.com site, which charged consumers between £150 and £1,000 for processing a self-assessment tax return. This was justified on the grounds that forms were checked for mistakes. But a spokesperson for Which? said: “We think this is misleading as HMRC has told us that the applications through the official site are also checked for errors.”

Other problems were discovered with copycat services relating to the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which covers holders for emergency healthcare in Europe. Which? found one website falsely claiming that it was offering services that were unavailable on the NHS. Another site used a web address including the initials “nhs”, which the consumer rights group said “may lead consumers to think they are using the official site”.

Last week Google acted on complaints from Transport for London that copycat sites were charging up to 1,000 a day up to £8 for additional services that either didn’t exist or were provided for free. Sites had taken payments for motorists even at times when congestion charges did not apply.

Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which? said action was overdue. “For too long copycat websites have got away with misleading consumers into paying potentially hundreds of pounds for services that should be free.”

Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, said he would not allow rogue sites to undermine Government plans to digitise public services. “Hardworking taxpayers should never have to pay for services we provide for free so we are clamping down on misleading websites. Gov.uk, our new single web domain, is the best way to access Government information and services.”

Google removed the sponsored adverts after working with the Government Digital Service to identify sites which were misleading consumers and were in breach of Google's policies. Theo Bertram, Head of Policy, Google UK, said: “We want to be serving ads that our users find useful. Working with the Government and TfL we have been able to better enforce our existing policies and protect users from misleading websites.” Google will be anxious to ensure that it does not block adverts for legitimate businesses, such as accountancy firms that offer genuine advice on tax returns.

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