Search Google or another internet seach engine for things like 'GHIC', 'EHIC', 'driving licence', 'birth certificate' or other terms relating to such documents, and you risk paying a shyster site that has copied an official one for doing nowt. Here are the top copycat websites to avoid and how to fight back if you get caught out.
What is a copycat website?
If you've searched online for a Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), and a site tried to charge you £35 to apply for one, even though they're free, 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' or 'service', even though neither is needed. For example, with Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) applications, they might charge £60+ to process an application you can easily do for around £17 via the US Customs and Border Protection site.
Why don't you call them 'scam sites'?
We call these websites 'copycat sites' or 'shyster sites' because we can't call them scam sites. That's because scams are illegal, yet these sites aren't technically unlawful, though we think they should be. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) said back in 2014 that it's not illegal for firms to charge for reviewing and forwarding services.
But these sites do have to make it clear that they're not affiliated to the Government, and explain that it's possible to apply for free or less through official sites. Currently, Trading Standards is responsible for investigating and taking action against misleading sites that pass themselves off as official Government services.
How do they get away with it?
Look closely and copycat websites almost always say something like 'not affiliated with any government body' or 'online support and travel tips for only £80'. The sites' designs are crafty, and if you're doing it quickly, you can easily miss these often teeny warnings.
What websites should I avoid?
When we checked in June 2023, 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):
- GHIC and EHIC. A lookalike site appeared eighth in Google's search results, charging from £34.50 for a GHIC application – normally free. Legit site: GHIC and EHIC. Further help: Free GHIC and EHIC.
- ESTA. When we searched for ESTA, a permit that lets you visit the US without needing a visa, a copycat site appeared sixth in Google's results, charging $74 (£60ish) for the (usually $21/£16.50ish) application. Legit site: ESTA. Further help: Get an ESTA for US travel.
- Birth and marriage certificates. After searching for copies of birth and marriage certificates, after ads the fifth result on Google was a site charging up to £49.99 per copy in England and Wales – usually it's £11 (£35 for the priority service). Legit site: Gov.uk.
- London congestion charge payments. These are usually up to £15 a day, but a result on the first page of Google was charging £17.50. Legit site: TfL.
- Driving theory tests. The top ad to appear in Google's results linked to a site charging £44.99 to book a theory test - usually it should be £23 for a car or motorcycle test. Legit site: Gov.uk.
- Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) payments. Usually £12.50 a day, but we found a site on the third page of Google charging £17.50. Legit site: TfL.
In the past we've also spotted:
- Driving licence renewals. In the ads at the bottom of the first page of results was a firm offering 'checking service' for driving licence renewals, which should normally be £14, at a cost of £60. Legit site: Gov.uk. Further help: How do I renew my driving licence?
This is a sample – not the full list. Way back 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.
What to beware of when searching
When searching the internet using terms related to applying for or renewing official documents, you may see that a copycat website comes top of the results, rather than the official site. It's crucial to understand the difference between ads in search engines such as Google and Bing, and general search results. On Google, paid ads appear at the top of the results (and back in 2016 it increased the number shown), with 'sponsored' in bold above them – 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 these 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.
Can I get a refund?
The quicker you get in contact to say you were misled that it was an official site, the better. Email straightaway saying you want to cancel your contract and be refunded in full, explaining you didn't realise you were paying for a service that you could get for free or cheaper by going direct.
Also, check the site's T&Cs. Some say they will refund people who cancell within a certain period, for example, within 14 days. If so, email right away, but beware any customer service phone numbers listed in case you end up paying expensive call charges.
If you don't get an immediate response and feel like you're hitting a brick wall, remember you're more likely to get a refund if you kick up a fuss and contine to email on a regular basis, restating your request, 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."
What if the copycat website still doesn't reply?
It's worth writing to it by snail mail if you can find a postal address for it – download our free template letter to help get you started. Please let us know how you got on using the MSE Forum, Twitter or by emailing successes@moneysavingexpert.
You can also report the incident to Trading Standards by using calling the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 0808 223 1133 (Welsh language: 0808 223 1144) and report adverts for copycat websites to Google and/or Bing.
If all else fails, and you're unable to get a refund from a copycat website through contacting it or reporting it to Trading Standards, you could take it to the small claims court and say you feel you were misled.
While doing this is relatively easy, you will need to pay fees upfront. You get these back if you win, but you'll need to weigh up the hassle of paying them out and the risk of losing them against how much you lost originally.
Ultimately, you might want to just put it down to (deeply irritating) experience, but for full help see our guide to Small claims court.
Clever ways to calculate your finances