Unofficial documents sites targeted
Three websites masquerading as official channels for health insurance cards, birth certificates and passports have been banned in a crackdown by the advertising watchdog.
The "copycat" websites - europeanhealthcard.org.uk, uk-officialservices.co.uk and ukpassportoffices.co.uk - all misled consumers into thinking they were the official provider of the services they were offering, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said.
The have all been banned in their current form, with the ASA ordering that future versions must include prominent disclaimers clearly explaining that they are not the official channels and information about any additional costs.
The ASA said it had received large numbers of complaints from consumers about websites that offered access to online government services, but which were not the official channels and often charged a premium for their service.
It said that following research about the public's experience of "copycat" websites in July, it made the decision to conduct several investigations to establish a clear position on how such sites should present their services to avoid misleading consumers.
The ASA said the europeanhealthcard.org.uk website charged for their application verification service, and the EHIC was available for free when applied for via the official gov.uk website.
It understood the uk-officialservices.co.uk website enabled users to obtain birth, adoption, marriage, civil partnership and death certificates - but was not the official government channel.
It also charged a premium for the service, in addition to any costs ordinarily charged by the official gov.uk website, and the ASA said consumers were likely to infer that a website which enabled them to obtain government-issued certificates was official, unless it made clear that was not the case.
The ukpassportoffices.co.uk website charged for their application verification service, and their fees did not include the fee charged by HM Passport Office, which consumers would still be required to pay directly to the official office.
The ASA said: "Because the website did not make it sufficiently clear it was not the official website to obtain a passport, we concluded it was misleading.
"We also concluded the website was misleading, because it did not make clear that the fee charged by the advertiser was a service charge only, and that an additional fee was payable to HMPO to obtain a passport."
Regarding europeanhealthcard.org.uk, the ASA said: "We considered that many consumers would not be aware that the EHIC could be obtained for free from the NHS.
"It was therefore important that the European EHIC Services website made clear that they charged a premium for their commercial application verification service, and that the EHIC could be obtained for free from the NHS."
The ASA ruled that all three websites must not appear again in their current form.
Consumer affairs minister Jo Swinson said: "Misleading websites which trick people into believing they are using the official Government channel need to be stopped in their tracks. The ASA's clampdown on these particular websites, which prey on those who are less web-savvy, should be commended.
"If in doubt, you should always use the official Government service for things like health insurance cards, birth certificates and passports and the best way to do this is on the Gov.uk website. That way, people aren't going to be conned out of their hard-earned money."
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: " It's good to see the ASA cracking down on copycat websites that have misled consumers into paying for services that should be free or that they did not need in the first place.
"We want this to be the start of tougher action against these sites, including a review of the law to ensure consumers are properly protected."