Avoid the copycat websites that charge for free services

The web is full of copycat websites that charge you for performing tasks that are usually free.

These include sites for claiming back tax, getting benefits, getting a travel visa or overseas health insurance.

Not only do some firms charge, but they can be a pointless extra layer of bureaucracy.

Often, they simply pass your application or complaint to the relevant body, without doing extra work, meaning you cannot be sure it has reached its destination, and you cannot be sure of the safety of your data.

We round up five of the most common fee-charging sites or services you should avoid.

  1. Tax refunds. If you're due a tax refund, you'll get 100% of your entitlement if you apply directly to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). See the HMRC Tax Refund page for info.

    However, if you Google 'tax refund' you'll see a number of sites that charge to help you get your money back. Typical fees include 15% of the refund plus VAT, which is a £352.50 fee on a £2,000 refund. Often, the minimum fee is around £50 plus VAT.

    To add insult to injury, you usually have to call premium rate numbers, which can cost £1.50 a minute, to get help when using these services (see the 2010/11 Tax Rates guide).

  2. Child benefit. Applying for child benefit is free, if done via HMRC (see the HMRC Child Benefit page). Yet, like with tax refunds, a Google search will yield sites that charge to submit an application for you. One site we found charges £11.69.

    Quite simply, ignore any fee-charging firms (see the Benefits Check-up guide). An HMRC spokesman says: "We would strongly advise customers come to us in the first instance."

  3. The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). UK residents can apply for a free EHIC which gets you free or reduced-cost state-provided medical treatment in most European counties. See the official EHIC.org.uk page to apply for free.

    But once again, when searching for an EHIC on Google you may find sites that charge you to send your application on, some with incredibly similar URLs, which charge around £10 typically.

    You should get an EHIC even if you have travel insurance. Some insurers require you to have an EHIC in Europe and some will waive the excess charge if an EHIC is used (see the EHIC and Cheap Travel Insurance guides).

  4. USA entry permits. If you're a UK citizen travelling to the United States, and you do not need a visa, you must still fill out an online form before you travel to ensure you are eligible to enter the country. This is called the Esta and is a free service (for now, though it may charge in future) provided by the US Government (see official Esta site).

    Yet numerous sites charge to send your application on. We spotted fees up to $49.50 (£32.50). Don't pay them and only use the official US Government site.

  5. Reclaiming cash. Many consumers have been mis-sold products or been hit with unfair fees that you can reclaim for free by complaining to your provider and, if unsuccessful, the free Financial Ombudsman Service.

    Yet claims management firms often encourage you to use them to make a claim via online advertising, and other means.

    On mis-sold payment protection insurance, the most common type of reclaim, claims companies typically charge up to 25% (+VAT) of any award. On a £10,000 pay-out, that's a £2,937 fee (see the PPI Reclaiming guide).

    The Ombudsman says you should never use them, as all you're doing is giving information to a claims firm you'd have to give it anyway (see the 'Don't use claims firms' MSE news story).

    This category is not as clear-cut. Claims firms insist that as some people do not have the time to complain, or may be put off by the bureaucracy, they serve a purpose (see the Bank Charges, Credit Card Charges, Direct Debits, Setting Off, Mortgage Arrears and Endowment Mis-selling guides).

Please feel free to suggest more in the discussion link below.

Further reading / Key links

MoneySaving guides: Benefits Check-up, 2010/11 Tax Rates, Cheap Travel Insurance
Reclaim cash: PPI Reclaiming, Bank Charges, Credit Card Charges, Direct Debits, Setting Off, Mortgage Arrears and Endowment Misselling

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