Self-assessment tax returns - avoid non-HMRC sitesSave money and learn how to spot copycat sites

24 January 2014

UK tax

It's free to register for self-assessment and file tax returns on HMRC’s website, but using a third-party, official-looking website could cost you up to £1000.

Which? has received reports from people who have unwittingly paid huge fees to unofficial websites for services they can do themselves for free on HMRC's website.

Last year, our scams investigation found that half of those who come into contact with copycat websites are fooled by them. These types of sites charge a fee to process official documents which consumers can do themselves cheaper or for free.

With the self-assessment tax return deadline of January 31 fast approaching, we show you how to ensure you're not caught out by inadvertently using unofficial websites.

If you're looking for tax and benefit advice from qualified experts, members can call the free Which? Money Helpline. Not a member? You can subscribe today for just £1 for one month.

HMRC website not the first tax return result

When you search online for 'tax return' or 'passport', copycat sites often appear at the top of the search results in light-coloured boxes as they've paid to have their links promoted. Unfortunately, we've received reports from people who have clicked these ad links, believing them to be the official HMRC site.

We think some of the wording in those search engine adverts can also cause confusion - which is why we recently reported two passport processing websites to Google and the Advertising Standards Authority.

Copycat tax return sites - the cost and how to avoid them

Most of us can spot a scam 'phishing' email purporting to be from a bank, but it's not always obvious whether the website you're visiting is official.

It doesn't help that some can look more professional and appealing than the official ones. But a mistake could hit your pocket hard. We've heard from people who paid unofficial websites up to £1,000 - and then still have to pay their tax bill - before realising they could have completed the service for free on HMRC's website.

Don't dive into filling out an application form. Here are our top tips to avoid being caught out:

  • The website's link - the name may sound official but a government website should have a address;
  • If  'Ads related to…' appears above search result links, remember that these are adverts paid for by third party sites;
  • Be wary of unsolicited calls and emails offering tax rebates or requesting payment - HMRC would never contact you this way.

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