Copycat websites warning issued
Copycat websites which deceive consumers into thinking they are using a government service are to face increased scrutiny, ministers have announced.
Consumer Minister Jenny Willott said Trading Standards would receive an extra £120,000 to clamp down on the websites that "try and palm themselves off" as government sites.
It follows complaints that sites are masquerading as legitimate government services, exaggerating what they can provide and underplaying what consumers can get for free or at a lower cost from official sources.
Miss Willott said the funding would better equip Trading Standards to identify, investigate and take enforcement action against any misleading websites that pass themselves off as official government services.
She said: "Misleading websites which dupe people into believing they are using the official government channel need to be stopped in their tracks.
"The unfortunate reality is that a minority are exploiting those who are perhaps less web-savvy and we need to clamp down on them.
"These rogues that con people out of their hard-earned cash need to know that the full glare of Trading Standards is now on them."
National Trading Standards Board chairman Lord Toby Harris said: "Copycat websites that deceive consumers are a growing problem.
"These sites frequently encourage consumers to pay a fee or an extra charge for a service that is readily or freely available from the official website.
"Moreover, they often require those accessing them to share information that is personal and should be held securely.
"This additional government support to help tackle this challenge is most welcome. By working together in this way we look forward to reducing consumer detriment and supporting legitimate businesses."
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the Government was continuing to work with organisations such as the Advertising Standards Authority, consumer group Which? and the major search engines including Google to raise awareness of the threat posed by misleading websites
Consumer group Which? said its research into 10 websites providing services for passport applications, European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs) and tax return services found them to be misleading or confusing, providing poor value for money and leaving some consumers up to £1,000 out of pocket.
Of the seven passport sites studied, Which? found examples where users could be misled into thinking they were on the official government pages.
One site, passport.gb.com, welcomed visitors to the "UK Passport Application Service" while another site, britishpassportservices.co.uk, had an online form which was "extremely similar" to the official passport application form.
Which? also found UK-Passport.net to offer "poor value for money" because it checked passport applications for a fee of £72.50 when the same service was available at the Post Office for £8.75.
Of the two EHIC sites Which? looked at, it found europeanhealthcard.org.uk wrongly claiming that it offered services which were not available through the NHS. It also found the web address of the nhs-e111-ehic.org.uk confusing as the use of NHS in the URL "may lead consumers to think they are using the official site".
Responding to the announcement of extra government funding, Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: " For too long copycat websites have got away with misleading consumers into paying potentially hundreds of pounds for services that should be free.
"There must be an immediate crackdown on copycat websites, along with a review of legislation and any offending sites immediately removed from the internet."