Copycat websites: how to avoid them
Published 28 January 2016
When searching to apply for a holiday visa or car tax, a number of websites pop up – here’s how to identify the copycats.
If you’re about to go on holiday and want to apply for a holiday visa or are in the final stages of your driving lessons and you’re looking to book your test soon, you might come across a number of different copycat websites when searching around.
Copycat websites are sites that charge a fee for services offered by Government departments or local authorities, such as applying for a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or driving licence renewal, which are either free through official routes or much cheaper. To help you spot these copycats, we’re going to run you through what you should look out for.
How do they work?
In the past, the reason why these copycat websites were so convincing is that they often showed up on the top of the search results on Google, usually with a small ad logo. This would be paid for, with the ads being placed in prominent position at the top of the page, allowing them to get more exposure. Recently, this process changed and these sites can no longer buy paid ads but can instead appear mixed in with natural search results, so you could still click on them unwittingly.
These copycat sites typically offer to process your application quickly or check it for you, but for an extra fee. For example, they may charge you £20 to process an application for an EHIC which you can do for free via the NHS website. Or they’ll offer to get you a driving theory test booked in quicker for the cost of the test plus a fee – according to Money Saving Expert, they can charge up to £60 extra for this.
As these sites make it clear that they’re not affiliated to the Government and explain that the services they offer can be found for free or less through official sites, they’re not doing anything illegal by offering these services. With that said, the Government Digital Service are working with Google to identify advertisements which mislead customers and as a result, breach Google’s policies. Trading Standards is also taking action against sites that pass themselves off as official Government services.
Spot a copycat
To make sure that you don’t find yourself using a copycat website in the future, here’s how to spot one:
• Read the homepage before you do anything. If the site says that it’s not officially affiliated with the Government or another official body, then you’ll know it’s a copycat.
• Check the web address – all official Government services should have ‘gov.uk’ in the web address. You shouldn’t be fooled by a .org web address either as this doesn’t automatically mean that the site is official.
• Don’t automatically click on the first website that shows up in a search engine, double check that you’re going through the official site. If in doubt, go directly to Gov.uk website.
• If you decide to use an unofficial site because it offers an extra service, make sure that the payment page is secure. To do this check the web address: it should begin with ‘https://’ and have a locked padlock in the browser window.
• To get a refund from a copycat website, contact the company immediately and explain that you didn’t realise that you could get the service for free or cheaper by going direct. If you don’t get a refund straightway, persist with the company or report the case to the Office of Fair Trading or Trading Standards by calling the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0345 404 0506.