In other words, you should steer well clear of sites that give the impression they are official and which try to levy a fee.
These third-party websites offer to process your application at a cost, which means not only will you be paying over the odds for items such as your car tax and passport, you could also end up paying through the nose for services the government offers for free, such as tax returns and EHIC.
And if you think there’s no way you could be duped by such a site, some of them do a pretty convincing impersonation of the official sites and appear more or less authentic.
So let’s take a look at how these sites work, how you can avoid them and what, if anything, is being done about them.
Can you spot a bogus site?
If you do a search online for, say, ‘pay car tax online’ or ‘pay congestion charge online’ there’s a good chance that, alongside any links to the relevant official sites, there’ll be links to companies offering to process your application in return for a fee.
Obviously, no-one would wittingly pay a company to process an application that should be processed free of charge, but these ‘middlemen’ sites often try to get around this by mimicking the official government sites.
Isn’t this against the law, you ask? Actually, no. It’s not illegal to offer such services, but it is illegal to design an independent site so it looks like an official one in order to mislead the public.
An example is the copycat tax disc website that was brought to our attention by one of our customers via the MoneySuperMarket forum. They found that, having applied for a £79.75 six-month tax disc through taxdisc.direct, £119 was actually deducted from their account.
If you’re looking to apply for or renew a tax disc online, you should go to https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/driver-and-vehicle-licensing-agency
It’s not only those looking to renew their car tax online who can fall foul of such sites. Opportunists are running similar scams for other government services using addresses similar to those of the official sites.
For example, searching for ‘passport renewal’ will bring up a link to passports-uk.co.uk, which offers online applications for new passports and renewals and even claims to offer a more comprehensive service than that offered by the Post Office. It’s not until you scroll down the homepage that the additional £55 fee is mentioned.
Similarly, search for ‘apply for EHIC’ one of the sites you’ll be directed to is europeanhealthcard.org.uk, which come with a ‘Standard Application’ fee of £23.50 and a ‘Fast Track Application’ of £24.99.
Might as well pay the extra £1.49 and go for the fast track, then? Well, no, not really - you can get an EHIC completely free by going to either of the official gov.uk or nhs.uk websites. And no, there’s no fast-track route to circumvent the official system.
If you were to apply online for an EHIC, which of the two sites below would you say is the one you should use – Site A or Site B?
If you apply through Site A, you’ll have the dubious honour of paying twenty-odd quid for your normally free EHIC. Amazingly, the pretty shoddy looking Site B is the official NHS site.
So given that these middlemen either mimic the government sites or can appear more official than they do, what can you do to avoid being duped?
Don’t get caught by the middleman
The best way to avoid getting ripped off is by being vigilant and only ever applying for official documents through the proper government websites which will always have a .gov.uk or nhs.uk web address.
It also pays to do some research around the documents you’re applying for – for instance, while it’s free to apply for a tax disc, passport and EHIC and submit your tax returns via the official government websites, Post Office does charge an added premium of £8.75 for its Passport Check and Send service (on top of the first passport or renewal charges of £72.50 for an adult and £46 for a child).
Pay any more, and you’ve been had.
So is there anything being done about these middlemen?
Catching out the middleman
As soon as we were made aware of the bogus tax disc site we flagged it with the DVLA and, although the site is still in operation – as mentioned above, there’s nothing illegal about the service it provides – it no longer looks like the DVLA site and so there’s less chance of customers getting confused.
A DVLA spokesman said: “The Government is aware of a problem with third party websites passing themselves off as legitimate government services, for example to customers who are applying for driving licences. Some sites exaggerate the nature of the services they provide, or deliberately underplay the services that people can get for free or at a lower cost from official sources.
“Several organisations have a role to prevent websites making misleading claims. The Government is working, and will continue to work, with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the National Trading Standards Board (NTSB) and search engine providers such as Google, to raise awareness of this issue and to ensure enforcement action is taken where appropriate.
“DVLA has published advice on GOV.UK to remind motorists that GOV.UK is the first stop for motoring services and that other websites may charge additional fees. DVLA also directs motorists to GOV.UK in all its leaflets, forms and in news stories and its social media channels.”
If you see a website that looks misleading you should go to www.gov.uk/misleadingwebsites.
And just this week five people have been arrested under the fraud act as part of a crackdown on similar copycat government websites – so it looks like the net could be closing in on the fraudsters.
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