A Which? investigation published today reveals how a crackdown on ‘copycat’ websites – which look like their official counterparts but charge extra for doing little or nothing – has failed to stop the problem.
Whether you’re getting a European Health Insurance Card (Ehic) or trying to contact the DVLA, chances are you’ve searched online and encountered an impostor with convincing branding.
Which? examined the results of popular searches for official sites and found many riddled with copycats attempting to charge over the odds for items such as travel documents. For example, 10 out of the top 20 UK results for ‘Esta visa’ (for those travelling to the US under the visa-waiver system) weren’t official sites; this is a search that more than 40,000 people in the UK carry out every month.
Copycats costing millions
Copycats are a problem only if they’re fooling consumers – so we tested some by asking more than 4,000 Which? members to pick the official site from a line-up of four. In our test, 29% couldn’t spot the right one.
We also asked National Trading Standards (NTS), which is responsible for combating the problem, how much copycats cost consumers; it believes the bill has hit tens of millions of pounds. Despite a crackdown which began in 2014, when NTS received extra government funding to tackle it, it’s still ‘testing where the boundaries of the law are’.
Can you pick the official site? Try our test, below.
The searches teeming with copycats
Some sites are dealt with quickly. In July, officials found impostors selling disabled Blue Badges, which should cost £12, for more than £50.
In October, none of the top 20 UK search results for ‘blue badge’, ‘disabled badge’ and ‘blue badge application’ returned any copycats.
However, other search results are riddled with them. Prominent search results for ‘Ehic’ include sites asking for payment for a card that is free. What’s more, the top result for ‘E111’ – the old name for Ehic – was a copycat website.
We’ve included the results of our research in the chart below, along with how many UK people are searching for that service each month in brackets. The red circle indicates a copycat or misleading site.
One version of a copycat ‘service’ is to charge you a fee of, say, £3.60 a minute simply to connect you to a free or low-cost number.
One member alerted us to the website dvla-contact-number.co.uk, which offers an 0844 phone number charging 7p a minute.
A spokesperson from the DVLA confirmed it wasn’t an official number, despite the fact that it connects to the DVLA’s free helpline.
Similarly, when we searched for ‘Amazon UK contact number’, the Google answer box (the ‘featured result’ that can appear at the top of searches) advertised an 0843 number at 7p per minute. This number just connects you to the free 0800 number on Amazon’s website.
The site that supplied the result, contactnumbers-uk.co.uk, also offers 0843 numbers for HMRC and Sky.
While Amazon didn’t comment on our findings, it has its own sponsored ads to make its contact details more prominent.
We’ve found similar sites simply connect to the London Congestion Charge number at connectmynumber.co.uk. The line charges £3.60 per minute to connect to a free number.
Despite scouring the sites, we weren’t able to find contact numbers for Contact Numbers UK and DVLA Contact Number to ask them to justify these fees.
How to find the official site
Looking for ‘.gov’ in a web address isn’t always the answer, as many government-affiliated sites – such as The Pensions Advisory Service (pensionsadvisoryservice.org.uk) – don’t contain it.
Here are our tips:
- Is it a paid search engine ad? Look out for paid-for search engine results. These are the boxed adverts displayed at the top of search engine result pages. Quite often, the official site is the first or second non-paid-for link that appears below the ads.
- Read the homepage Take a couple of minutes to double-check the site; don’t dive straight into filling out an application form. Visit the homepage and read the text there. It may even say that the site is not officially affiliated with the official body.
- Check the web address Don’t be fooled by a .org web address, as this is no guarantee that it is a body’s official website. Any website claiming to be an official government website should have a .gov.uk address. To be sure, check the list below.
- Https vs http Although it’s not a guarantee, you can check for ‘https://’ at the beginning of the website address. On pages where you are entering personal information, this indicates that there is encryption in place to protect your personal details; websites just with http:// don’t encrypt your details.
The following are all official sites:
- Citizens advice: citizensadvice.org.uk
- Congestion charge: tfl.gov.uk/modes/driving/congestioncharge
- Disabled parking (blue badge): gov.uk/apply-blue-badge
- DVLA: gov.uk/government/organisations/driver-and-vehiclelicensing-agency
- Ehic: ehic.org.uk
- Esta (US visa waiver): esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta
- HMRC: gov.uk/government/organisations/hm-revenuecustoms
- Land Registry title deeds: gov.uk/get-information-aboutproperty-and-land
- Money Advice Service: moneyadviceservice.org.uk
- Passport renewal: gov.uk/renew-adult-passport/renew
- Pensions Advisory Service: pensionsadvisoryservice.org.uk
- Pension Wise: pensionwise.gov.uk
- Tax return: gov.uk/selfassessment-tax-returns
- Turkish visa: evisa.gov.tr/en