Copycat websites on the rise
The Advertising Standards Authority said it had received 700 complaints about 25 websites in the past year. The majority of these are “copycat websites” that charge for services that are actually available free, such as updating a driving licence or submitting a completed tax return.
Part-time nurse Vanessa Andreae thought she was taking the easy option when she decided to file her tax return using what she believed was an official website.
She was charged £400 to file her return by the taxreturngateway.com website. Only later did she realise she could have filed her tax return free through the official HM Revenue & Customs website.
Many of these sites indemnify themselves by including in small print that they are not affiliated with HMRC or any government agency, but this is often well hidden at the bottom of the page.
In a statement taxreturngateway.com said: “We do not accept the suggestion that we are a copycat website. We are a bespoke tax return checking and fulfilment agency.
“We have always made it absolutely clear on the homepage of our website that we are not associated with HMRC, Department for Work and Pensions or any other government body, and that we will levy a charge for the service we provide.”
Legal, but with a lack of transparency
These websites are perfectly legal and many do make it quite clear that they are providing a service that the user will have to pay for. Some of the sites look very similar to official ones and some people might not read through the disclaimers or the terms and conditions.
Many of these websites are paying for sponsorship on search engines such as Google and therefore appear at the top of an online search.
The Advertising Standards Authority said it had received around 700 complaints in the past 12 months about transparency and pricing.
“Complaints that we are receiving are about people being misled as to the nature of the service being offered, a feeling that they might be official services when actually they are not,” said the ASA director of advertising policy and practice, Shahriar Coupal.
“Perhaps a little bit more worrying are concerns about the pricing or the transparency of the pricing – people feeling that they are left out of pocket for a service they would not have entered into had they known that it wasn’t official.”
Google said in a statement: “We have a strict set of policies which govern what types of ads appear on Google. If we learn an advertiser is breaching these policies, we move swiftly to take action.”
Recently, Google modified its AdWords system to stop the words “NHS Direct” being sold to the copycatters. There is now a feeling that it and the other search engines should apply the same approach to all government services: the official website should appear first, rather than a commercial site charging an inflated fee under the guise of offering a “checking” service.