The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned three websites that provide application services for official documents, after ruling they are misleading consumers.
Copycat websites pose as official channels for applications, charging for services that are provided for less money – or free-of-charge – through official government channels.
This week, the ASA ruled that the three such websites – europeanhealthcard.org.uk, uk-officialservices.co.uk and ukpassportoffices.co.uk – may mislead consumers into thinking they were the official provider of the services they were offering, including applications for European Health Insurance Cards and birth certificates.
While all have been banned in their current form, meaning they must not appear in that form again, they can continue to operate as long as future versions include prominent disclaimers that clearly explain they are not the official channels. They must also detail any additional costs.
Don’t get caught out – read our guide on how to spot a copycat website.
ASA names misleading websites
The website europeanhealthcard.org.uk (Europe EHIC Services Ltd), which uses an official-sounding ‘.org.uk’ address, charged for checking applications – even though the EHIC itself is available for free if you apply via the government’s official gov.uk website.
The ukpassportoffices.co.uk website (UK Services & Support Ltd) also charged for checking applications and, like similar ‘copycat’ passport application websites, the fees did not include the fee charged by HM Passport Office. Consumers would still be left to pay this fee directly to the official office.
The uk-officialservices.co.uk website (TAD Services Ltd) had high prominence in Google search results with its sponsored advert, and was understood by the ASA to enable users to obtain birth, adoption, marriage, civil partnership and death certificates – but was not the official government channel. It charged a premium for the service, in addition to any costs ordinarily charged by the official gov.uk website. The ASA concluded that consumers were likely to infer that a website which enabled them to obtain government-issued certificates was official, unless it made clear that was not the case.
The ruling comes after Which? research earlier this year highlighted how such websites could be misleading, and left some consumers up to £1,000 out of pocket. More than 5,000 complaints were made to Citizens Advice last year and 700 were made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
A coordinated effort to crackdown on misleading copycat websites followed, with senior ministers, National Trading Standards Board, Google and Microsoft meeting to draw up a framework to enable search engines to identify and take action against websites that add little or no value to existing online government services.
In response to the ASA’s ruling, Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd, said, ‘It’s good to see the ASA cracking down on copycat websites that have misled consumers into paying for services that should be free or that they did not need in the first place. We want this to be the start of tougher action against these sites, including a review of the law to ensure consumers are properly protected.’