A clampdown on online hoaxers who con people out of money via faked copycat Government websites has led to five arrests.
Four search warrants were carried out last week on properties in England, resulting in five people being arrested on fraud and unfair trading regulation charges, National Trading Standards has today revealed.
This crackdown could lead to the operation of at least 25 copycat sites being disrupted, although National Trading Standards won't comment on what "disruption" has either taken place or will be caused.
Alongside this enforcement action, National Trading Standards has also today launched a video featuring a voiceover by MoneySavingExpert.com creator Martin Lewis, which is aimed at creating awareness of copycat sites to help prevent any more people from being conned.
MoneySavingExpert.com has continuously warned about the perils of using search engines to apply for EHICs, driving licences, passports and other documents, as you risk paying over the odds by clicking on an advertised link that takes you to a site which imitates official Government services.
These sites often use URLs that include fragments such as 'govuk' and 'directgov' to make it look like an official provider, but then charge hefty administration fees for providing the same service you could get yourself for free or for less money via the official Government website.
Last year, charity Citizens Advice received over 5,000 complaints about copycat sites, while 700 complaints were lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) mostly relating to tax returns, driving licences, EHICs and passports.
See our Copycat Websites guide for the top 10 types of copycat to avoid, the legitimate websites you need and how to fight back.
'Go via www.gov.uk'
Martin Lewis says: "Sadly, vigilance is necessary even when using official services. Copycat websites disguise themselves as the real thing, but charge you for a useless service.
"I've lost count of the number of people who contact me upset and want to know how to get their cash back. Generally that's very difficult, which is why you need to be tooled up in advance with the knowledge National Trading Standards is putting out today. If you want a Government service, go through www.gov.uk - don't use search engines."
Lord Toby Harris, chair of the National Trading Standards, board, says:"Our eCrime team is clamping down on the cyber fraudsters behind these websites and we are making it as difficult as possible for these online hoaxers to operate.
"We have been working with search engines such as Google and Bing to remove adverts from online search results and we continue to gather intelligence across the country to help tackle this issue."
How to protect yourself
MoneySavingExpert.com's top tips to ensure you're not ensnared, include:
- Avoid using a search engine and instead use Gov.uk – the official Government site.
- If you do go via a search engine, the website must make it clear that they're not affiliated to the Government, so look out for this and if you see it, don't use the website.
If you have been stung by one of these sites, request your money back by explaining that you didn't realise you were paying for a service you could have got free or cheaply direct.
You should also report it to the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06.