Public warned to avoid copycat websites when getting new passports
Northern Ireland holidaymakers have been warned to be wary of copycat websites when renewing their passports.
Staff at the Passport Office in Belfast claim they are seeing numerous cases of people falling victim to sites which may look official, but slap extra charges on top of the usual fee.
Sources say they are dealing with cases on a daily basis.
Numerous illegal websites which directly mimic official government departments have been shut down since 2014 but "misleading" third party companies which offer a range of government services are deemed to be operating within the parameters of the law.
The National Trading Standards eCrime Team, which has been investigating "highly dishonest" third party companies, has accused legal online operators of "deliberately trying to mislead people".
"Our view is that copycat websites are illegal and that they lead to significant detriment to consumers," an NTS spokesperson told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Some of the people behind these copycat websites may adapt their methods to stay within the boundaries of the law, but where we can we will disrupt their operations as effectively as possible.
"Where an individual has broken the law - under the Fraud Act or consumer protection from unfair trading regulations - they face arrest and prosecution."
Staff at HM Passport Office in Belfast deal with customers every day who unwittingly pay avoidable extra fees which can exceed £25 per applicant.
By lunchtime on Monday one member of staff had already dealt with three customers who had been "ripped off".
"It's a problem, we are taking it seriously and have collected data to gauge the extent of it, but unfortunately we only become aware once the money has been paid," a spokesman said.
"These companies can't book an appointment any quicker than you can do yourself on our official website."
But a third party company called Passports Office UK - the first company to show up in a Google search for the 'Passport Office Belfast' - has defended its claim to be faster and strongly denied misleading customers, saying they will happily refund anyone who feels that way.
"I can assure you that we do not trick people into using our services, we prominently display who we are and what we do in the header and footer on every page, we also include additional disclaimers throughout our website and ask customers to agree to our terms," a spokesperson said.
They blamed the government's inability to provide good online information and services for "a lot of issues within this industry".
"The only alternatives for consumers include navigating the confusing gov.uk website, waiting in a government phone queue, or having to wait 15 working days for the Passport Office to respond to emails," they added.
The spokesperson said the company's prominent ranking in a Google search is based on the "quality of its content" which customers decide is worth the extra fee.
Google insisted they do a "good job" of directing people to official websites but as third party companies offer a valid service they don't meet the "very limited set of circumstances" in which the link would be removed.