A crackdown on hoaxers who trick people out of money via copycat government websites has been launched as the Coalition takes action following thousands of complaints over the practice.
People trying to order official documents including passports, car tax discs or book driving tests have become increasingly susceptible to fraudsters who create websites masquerading as legitimate state services.
More than 5,700 people have complained to Citizens Advice and the Advertising Standards Authority, often after losing money to the sites which tend to charge high rates for services that are frequently not delivered or are free on government websites.
An investigation by Which? that examined 10 websites providing services for passport applications, European health-insurance cards and tax-return services, found them to be misleading or confusing, providing poor value for money and left some consumers up to £1,000 out of pocket.
The National Trading Standards Board (NTSB) said five arrests were made last week under the Fraud Act as they look to combat online hoaxers. All five people are on police bail.
The Government will today launch an official awareness campaign designed to educate consumers on how to spot such misleading websites.
The NTSB chairman, Lord Harris, said its eCrime team is now “making it as difficult as possible for these online hoaxers to operate” and warned many often use URLs that include fragments such as “govuk”, “directgov” or relevant organisation names that add to their sense of authenticity.
Similar design features are also included to emulate the official sites, campaigners warn. But one of the largest problems is their appearance on credible search engines. Copycat websites have proliferated in recent years, partly due to the ease with which companies can advertise on search engines such as Google.
Lord Harris said: “We have been working with search engines such as Google and Bing to remove adverts from online search results and we continue to gather intelligence across the country to help tackle this issue.”
Consumer Affairs Minister Jo Swinson said: “People should be aware of rogue websites that are out there trying to exploit them and take their hard-earned cash and even put them at risk of identity theft.”
Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said: “Simply punishing those committing this crime isn’t enough. People who have been duped by these sites should also get a full refund of the money they were misled into paying.”
Unofficial sites: three examples
Who4 repaid some clients of this website – who were charged up to £1,000 to file tax returns – after complaints people had thought it was the online payment service run by the Government.
Motorists paid a £40 “service fee” to renew their car tax disc through this website, even though it can be obtained free from the DVLA.
Consumer Focus warned in 2011 that people were “effectively tricked into paying an unnecessary additional fee” of £9.95 for a European Health Insurance Card, which can be obtained free from the NHS. However the website says it offers to check for errors on the application.