Copycat websites that charge customers for Government and other services, which are usually free, will find it harder to lure in victims after a crackdown by Google.

Google says it already bans the sale of Government forms or services that are available for free or for a lower price via official sites.

However, many copycat websites slip through the net by claiming to offer extra paid-for administrative services (see our 60-second guide to shyster sites for what to watch out for).

Google says it will now inspect these sites more closely and axe ads for those not offering "added value". It adds that it's working closely with the Government and other organisations to review how it ranks results for its users so that people do not mistakenly click through to these unofficial sites.

Where sites are found to be copycats, Google will take action to remove adverts linking to them. We asked Microsoft whether its Bing search engine had a similar policy, but it wouldn't give us any concrete assurances.

Copycat sites dress up like legitimate websites, and pay to appear high on search engines like Google. They then get you to fill in forms, charging you for "administration", even though it's not needed.

So you end up paying for a service, which you could have got for free or for a lower price. For example with EHIC, these sites often charge £20 to process an application you can easily do for free via the NHS. (See our Free EHIC guide for how.)

Martin Lewis
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Official ads appearing top of Google

Google says users should already notice the difference when using its search engine. tested that theory this morning, searching for the top 10 services which we found were most commonly copied (see our Top 10 shyster site types for what services you should look out for).

In all 10 searches, the official sites were top of Google's results. But when we carried out the same searches on Bing, official sites appeared at the top only six times.

A Google spokesperson says: "We want to be serving ads that our users find useful. Working with the Government and Transport for London, we have been able to better enforce our existing policies and protect users from misleading websites."

Bing says: "Bing is constantly evaluating our results and reviewing instances where quality can be refined. Our number one focus remains on providing an excellent search experience."

£1,000 to submit a tax return has constantly warned people about being ripped off by copycat sites.

In January we reported how one site was charging people up to £1,000 for a "tax return submission service" – even though you can do it free via the official HM Revenue & Customs website.

European Health Insurance Cards, birth and marriage certificates, and driving theory test bookings have also been mimicked online, while an aide of London mayor Boris Johnson was stung by a copycat site for travel forms to the US (see the Esta copycat site MSE News story).

In February, we also reported that 1,000 people were stung by an unofficial London congestion charge website, which added an extra £8 admin fee when motorists paid via its site, rather than going via Transport for London.

I paid an unofficial site. Can I get my money back?

In short, it's very difficult to get your money back from copycats. However, if you believe you've been misled or the website wasn't clear, it's worth directly contacting the firm in question to ask for a refund.

You can also report the incident to the Office of Fair Trading or Trading Standards by calling the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0845 404 0506. You can also report the problem to Google if you found the website after using the search engine.

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. You'll need to weigh up the hassle of doing this against how much you lost.

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