Google for an EHIC, driving licence, birth certificate or more, and you risk paying a shyster site for doing nowt. Here are the top copycat sites to avoid and how to fight back.
I just Googled European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), and a site tried to charge me £35. Aren't they free? I'm confused. Sounds like you've just come across a shyster site. These dress up like legitimate sites, using search optimisation tricks to appear high on Google.
They then get you to fill in forms, charging you for 'administration', even though there's no administration needed. For example, with ESTAs, they might charge £60+ to process an application you can easily do for a tenner via the US Customs and Border Protection site.
Outrageous. Why do you call these shyster sites, not scams then? We can't call them scams, because scams are illegal. These sites aren't technically unlawful, though we think they should be. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) says it's not illegal for firms to charge for reviewing and forwarding services.
But businesses do have to make it clear that they're not affiliated to the Government, and explain it's possible to apply for free or less through official sites. Trading Standards is investigating and aims to take action against misleading sites that pass themselves off as official Government services.
This sounds dodgier than Justin Bieber's Christmas album – how do they get away with it? Look closely and the sites almost always say something like "not affiliated with Gov.uk" or "we charge a service fee of £40 for additional benefits". The sites' designs are clever, and if you're doing it quickly, you can easily miss these teeny warnings.
So which sites do I need to steer clear of? When we checked in August 2016, these were the most common examples we found (though remember, search results change by the minute and are often personalised, so what you see may be different):
- European Health Insurance Cards. An ad for a lookalike site appeared second on Google search results, charging £35 for an EHIC application - normally free. Legit site: EHIC.org. Further help: Free EHICs guide.
- ESTAs. When we Googled for an ESTA, the US travel permit, the advert appearing right at the top of Google was a copycat site charging up to £61 for the (usually £10) application. Legit site: ESTA. Further help: ESTA guide.
- Driving theory tests. On the second page of Google results we found a site charging £44 to book a theory test - usually it should be £23. Legit site: Gov.uk.
- Birth and marriage certificates. After searching for copies of birth and marriage certificates, the second result after ads was a site charging £14 per copy - usually it's £9.25. Legit site: Gov.uk.
- Driving licence renewals. At the top of Google results was an ad from a firm offering 'administrative assistance' for driving licence renewals, which should normally be £14, at a cost of £60. Legit site: Gov.uk. Further help: Driving licence renewal guide.
- London congestion charge payments. These are usually up to £14/day, but the second result on Bing was a lookalike site charging £17.50. Legit site: TfL.
This is a sample - not the full list. In 2014, we ran a poll to find the top 10 types of copycat sites that people fall for. While with some search terms shyster sites may no longer be quite so widespread, it's still very much a problem.
When I searched, a shyster site was top on Google. Shouldn't the official site come first? It's crucial to understand the difference between Google (or Bing) ads and general search results. On Google, paid ads appear at the top of the results (and now there are more than previously), with a small green "Ad" icon next to the URL – and natural search results appear below that.
Until recently, the danger was that shyster sites would draw in clicks by paying for a prominent paid ad at the top of the page, but Google has now stopped the majority of shyster sites from buying ads. Some ads for copycat sites still slip through the net though, plus they may appear mixed in with the natural search results, so you should still be wary of them.
Google says it's working with the Government to review how it ranks results, so people don't mistakenly click on unofficial sites (see the Copycat sites news story).
Hang on, my mate's just paid one of these sites. Is there any way they'll see their cash again? In short, it's very difficult to get a refund. Most forumites report these companies have been reluctant to hand back payments.
The quicker you contact them to say you were misled that it was an official site, the better. Email straightaway saying you want to cancel your contract and get a refund, explaining you didn't realise you were paying for a service you that you could get for free or cheaper directly.
Also, check the site's terms. A few said they would refund people who cancelled within seven days. If so, email right away. Beware calling their expensive phone lines though.
Help! I'm hitting a brick wall... You're more likely to get a refund if you kick up a fuss and email several times, as MoneySaver Stung did after overpaying for a driving licence renewal. "Pester them – log onto their website and contact them. I got emails back saying they would refund and they have. Result – one happy lady."
You can also report the incident to the OFT or Trading Standards by calling the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0345 404 0506.
Can I just get legal on its butt? If all else fails, ultimately you could take it to the small claims court and say you feel you were misled. While relatively easy, you need to pay fees upfront, which you get back if you win. Though you need to weigh up the hassle against how much you lost.
You might want to just put it down to (deeply irritating) experience. For full help, see our Small Claims Court guide.
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