TRADING standards officers at Thurrock Council are joining national colleagues warning people about the dangers of using so-called “copycat” websites – especially around applying for passports.
Cllr Phil Smith, the council’s portfolio holder for public protection, said: “Our officers have seen a notable increase in people – often older people – who have used a website for applying for passports only to find they are then charged more than the set fees.”
He added: “This is because they are not using the ‘.gov’ sites and they are misleading – some people believe they are the only way to get a passport.
“In Thurrock we have received over ten of these complaints in the last month alone.”
Although the specific concern in Thurrock recently has been around applying for passports, booking driving tests and renewing car tax discs are just some of the other ways people are unwittingly being left out-of-pocket by “copycat” websites.
Cllr Smith said: “By imitating official government services online, these websites are designed to trick you into parting with your cash unnecessarily, charging users for services that are provided cheaper or even free-of-charge through official channels.”
Nationally, over 5,000 complaints were made to Citizens Advice last year and 700 were made to the Advertising Standards Authority. The most commonly reported complaints related to tax returns, driving licences, the European Health Insurance Card, and passports.
The National Trading Standards Board is issuing advice for consumers to beat the cyber con-artists, including a video guide.
Lord Toby Harris, chair of the board, said: “Our eCrime team is clamping down on the cyber fraudsters behind these websites and we are making it as difficult as possible for these online hoaxers to operate.
“We have been working with search engines such as Google and Bing to remove adverts from online search results and we continue to gather intelligence across the country to help tackle this issue.
“We urge you to avoid unofficial websites which could leave you out-of-pocket or at risk of identity theft. Only use the GOV.UK website to find government services. If you come across copycat websites, report them to Citizens Advice.”
The misleading websites often use URLs that include fragments such as “govuk”, “directgov” or relevant organisation names to make them appear official. Similar design features are also incorporated to replicate the ‘look and feel’ of official service websites.
To report a misleading or copycat website, you can call the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06.