David Davis comments on ‘copycat’ websites


As published in the Financial Mail on Sunday:
Online companies set up to mimic Government websites continue to trick consumers into paying hefty fees for everything from renewing a passport or driving licence to filing a tax return.
This is despite promises from regulators, Government departments and leading internet search engines to crack down on these websites that charge fees of up to £1,000 for services that are often free on official Government websites.

The Advertising Standards Authority labels them ‘copycat’ sites. Hundreds of readers have contacted The Mail on Sunday in the past month to demand that such websites are shut down. This followed our report on websites that promise to process, for a substantial fee, your self-assessment tax return.

Furious: Ondine Barry thought she had used an official website to renew daughter Evia’s passport
Readers have also been fooled into sending money for a European Health Insurance Card (otherwise free) or paying extra on top of the normal fees for driving licences, passports, the London Congestion Charge and acquiring Land Registry details.

Not only do many of the copycat websites look official but people are being encouraged to use them because key internet search engines, such as Google, allow these websites to pay for the right to appear at the top of search lists when consumers type in key words such as ‘passport renewal’.

Tips to ensure you find the OFFICIAL Government service…

Look out for gov.uk in the URL address – for example hmrc.gov.uk.

Take time to read the information on the website to ensure you’re using the official service.
If you think a website is misleading, lodge a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority.
Remember, you don’t have to apply online. The DVLA allows drivers to deal with them by post (most forms are available either online or from post offices). The Passport Office doesn’t accept payments online.
Top of the list is passport-uk.co.uk, which charges £69 for the renewal of an adult passport. This is on top of the £72.50 levied either by HM Passport Office or the £81.25 charged by the Post Office under its ‘Passport Check & Send’ scheme.

A search for ‘driving licence renewal’ also results in three copycat websites appearing ahead of the official site for the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency. Heading this list is drivinglicence.uk.com which charges £50 for processing a provisional licence application. This is on top of the £50 levied by the DVLA.

In its terms and conditions governing adverts, Google clearly states that it does not allow the promotion of sites that charge for Government forms that are normally free or available at a lower price on the official Government site. But its policing of these rules seems lax.
In December, Google removed an advert for a self-assessment tax return copycat website after pressure from The Mail on Sunday. But only last week, the same website – taxreturngateway.com – was appearing at the top of a list for a search under ‘self-assessment tax return’.

David Davis, Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden, East Riding of Yorkshire, says it is ‘plain as a pikestaff’ that Google must do more to ensure consumers are not tricked into using these bogus websites.
He adds: ‘By allowing these sites to pay their way to the top of searches, Google is ultimately condoning what is a consumer trap.’

Google says it is doing its best to ensure any adverts that fall short of its policies are dealt with as quickly as possible. Davis intends to raise the issue in the House of Commons and believes that the Home Office (responsible for passports), Department for Transport (driving licences) and Treasury (tax) should be doing more to alert consumers.

Rogue websites: They look like official ways to renew a driving licence or passport – but cost much more
Rogue websites: They look like official ways to renew a driving licence or passport – but cost much more
Ondine Barry, a marketing manager at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, was tricked into using a copycat website last summer when looking to renew her older daughter’s passport.

Ondine, 42, is married to Ben, 38, a motoring journalist, and they live in Stamford, Lincolnshire with their two girls, Evia, five, and Isla, two.

Ondine says: ‘When I typed “renewing a child’s British passport” into Google, the website passportdirect.org.uk was one of the first to come up. Given it was an “org” site rather than “com” or “co.uk” and because it was cleverly done up to look like the real McCoy I assumed it was the Government’s own passport site.’

She adds: ‘We paid the £49 and filled in the renewal form on the website. We then got an email saying we would have to send in Evia’s photograph, but it said nothing about further payments. So, a week later when we received the filled out forms in the mail, only to realise we still had to pay the Government fee of £46, we were furious – angry both at passportdirect for hoodwinking us and at ourselves for being duped.’
Although Ondine complained, passportdirect said its website clearly spelt out what its service offered and how its fees worked. Judith Martinez, 69, a widow from Greenford, West London, was also duped by the passportdirect website.

Two months ago, she paid it £69 for the renewal of her passport and realised her mistake too late. Her bank refused to refund her money while passportdirect stonewalled her emails.
Judith, a retired Job Centre manager, says: ‘Google should insist that these unofficial websites state in block capital letters that they are not Her Majesty’s Passport Office.’

You can fill in an application form online but you don’t pay online – you pay when you sign and return the printed form sent out by the Passport Office.
Passport costs are £72.50 for an adult, £46 for a child, free for those born before September 2, 1929. Applications made through the Post Office’s Passport Check & Send service cost £81.25 for an adult and £54.75 for children. Premium and fast-track services are also available.

You can apply online for a provisional licence (£50), renew a licence (£20, free for those aged 70 and over), get a replacement licence (£20) and make changes to details on your licence such as your address or name (free). There are no fees on top of these.

You can apply online for free.

You can buy online title registers (£3), title plans (£3) and flood risk indicator results (£9).

£10 on day, £12 next day.

Filing online costs nothing. Taxpayers have until the end of the month to file their self-assessment returns for the tax year ending April 5, 2013. Late returns risk fines starting at £100.
Patricia Jones, from Lichfield in Staffordshire, and Dennis Wilkinson, of Sheffield, have also fallen foul of a copycat passport website. Both used website passport-uk.co.uk and ended up paying £69 on top of the normal £72.50 that the Passport Office charges for the renewal of a passport.

Patricia, 67, a former sales assistant for a major high street retailer, used the website to renew her husband’s passport as a ‘surprise’ Christmas present. It was only when she spoke to the Passport Office that she realised a passport cannot be renewed online and that the £69 she paid was no more than a processing fee for the privilege of passport-uk.co.uk sending her a printed copy of the form she had filled in online.

Dennis, 73, renewed his passport last month ahead of going to Egypt to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary with wife Diane, 69. Dennis, a former agent for an insurance company, says: ‘I was brought up to trust people. I feel both small and hoodwinked by this service.’
A spokesman for the Passport Office says: ‘It’s totally unacceptable that unscrupulous companies are continuing to trick people.

‘We continue to monitor these sites and explore new ways to counteract their activities.’
The Advertising Standards Authority that is concerned about these websites although it says it is not against the law for a company to offer a service similar to that of an official Government body and to charge for it.

The Authority has commissioned consumer research into the problem. Once this is completed, it will consider further enforcement action. Last year it banned adverts for three companies.
Last week, The Mail on Sunday invited the owners of websites passportdirect.org.uk and passport-uk.co.uk and drivinglicence.uk.com to defend the value of their services and respond to criticism levelled at them by readers. None did so.
Charges: £72.50.
Ownership: Not disclosed on website.
Charges: £89.50 or £99.50 (fast track application).
Ownership: Who4, London.
Directors: Michael Hughes, Stephen Oliver and James Wyatt. No accounts filed.
Charges: £69 to £99.
Ownership: IQ Channels, 111 Buckingham Palace Road, London.
Director: Geoff William Laffoley-Lane.
No accounts filed.
Charges: £69.
Ownership: Elucidate Contractor Services, Brentwood, Essex.
Directors: Paul Warren Macatonia and Brett Alexandre Adams.
No accounts filed.

Charges: £20 to £90.
Ownership: Not disclosed on website.
Charges: £50 to £107.
Ownership: Caveat Viator, London
Directors: Michael Hughes, Stephen Oliver and James Wyatt.
No accounts filed.
Charges: from £29.99.
Ownership: Eazy Applications, Swansea.
Directors: Akash Ghai, Kevin Shaw, Philip Shaw and Deepinder Somal.
No accounts filed.
Charges: £1.
Ownership: Fame Gate, Hong Kong.
Charges: No fees disclosed on home page.
Ownership: RA Link Solutions, Windsor, Berkshire.
Director: Michael Freeman.
No accounts filed.

Charges: £23.50 or £24.99 (fast track).
Ownership: Europe EHIC Services, Sunderland.
Directors: Dale, Damien and Mahmud Sartip-Zadeh.
No accounts filed.
Charges: £21.99.
Ownership: EHIC Services Europe, London.
Director: David Connor.
No accounts filed.
Charges: £24 to £29.99.
Ownership: Juno Apps Limited, Tonbridge, Kent.
Director: Ben Carter.
No accounts filed.
Charges: £24 to £29 (fast track).
Ownership: Europhealth, London.
Directors: Michael Hughes, Stephen Oliver and James Wyatt.
No accounts filed.
Charges: £14.99 or £19.99 (post). £5 surcharge for fast track service.
Ownership: EHIC, Belgium.

Charges: Title register £19.95. Title plans £19.95.
Ownership: Timewell plc, Birkenhead, Merseyside.
Directors: Caroline and Roy McKee.
Accounts overdue.
Charges: Title register £14.95, title plans £14.95.
Ownership: ADB Architectural Services, Darwen, Lancashire.
Directors: Emily and John Gardner.
Accounts filed for year to end August 2012.

Charges: £16 current day, £20 next day.
Ownership: Paylondoncongestion, London.
Directors: Miguel Blanco and Bradley Exall.
No accounts filed.

Charges: £150 to £1,000.
Ownership: Who4, London.
Directors: Michael Hughes, Stephen Oliver and James

No accounts filed.

I paid £80 for a free driving licence
Retired RAF pilot and British Airways engineer Peter Mallinson is one of many readers to have been duped by websites that charge drivers an additional processing fee for the renewal of a driving licence.

Peter, 78, from Swindon, Wiltshire, paid £80 to website drivinglicence.uk.com for renewing his licence. If he applied through the official Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency website, he would have paid nothing because he is over 70. Although he complained, the copycat website refused to refund his £80.

Duped: Peter Mallinson complained but failed to get a refund
He says: ‘Although I now understand that the service they offered was not for me to receive a licence, it does seem to be way over the top to charge £80 for checking a single page of a form that had no errors.
‘I am glad you are highlighting these websites in your paper. They are misleading.’ A spokesman for the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency said: ‘Gov.uk is the first stop for all Government services and motorists should be aware that other websites may charge additional fees for providing checking services.’
The same old names…and they’re late with the accounts
Many copycat websites are run by the same company or have common directors or identical registered offices. And many of these operators have yet to issue company accounts.
Websites passport.uk.com, drivinglicence.uk.com, europeanhealth.org.uk and taxreturngateway.com all have Michael Hughes, Stephen Oliver and James Wyatt as directors.

The websites are respectively owned by Who4, Caveat Viator (Latin for ‘let the traveller beware’), Europhealth and again Who4. Not one of these three companies, all registered at offices on St John Street, London, has filed accounts, according to Companies House records.

Caught out: Derek and Jenny Riddle paid extra for their passports
The sole director of EHIC Services Europe – the company behind European Health Insurance Card website nhs-e111-ehic.org.uk – is also a director of Who5. This company is registered at the same offices as Who4, Caveat Viator and Europhealth – 145-157 St John Street.

Among Who5’s directors are Dale and Damien Sartip-Zadeh who are also directors of Europe EHIC Services, the operator of European Health Insurance Card websites apply-ehic-card-e111.org.uk and europeanhealthcard.org.uk. EHIC Services Europe, Who5 and Europe EHIC Services have yet to file accounts to Companies House.

The last piece of the jigsaw is provided by paylondoncongestion.co.uk, which charges motorists for processing their congestion fee. Its website is owned by Paylondoncongestion, a company registered at the same offices as Who4, Caveat Viator, Europhealth and Who5. Their accounts have yet to be filed.
Jenny Riddle, 59, and husband Derek, 63, from Bushey in Hertfordshire, were duped into using passport.uk.com, paying £69.50 each on top of the official £72.50 cost of renewing a passport.

Jenny, a facilities manager for a financial services company, says: ‘I consider myself to be reasonably intelligent but I felt so stupid when I realised what I had done.

‘I know it’s not illegal to offer a processing service for a passport application but it’s immoral.’
MoS wins £400 for nurse who fell for the tax trap
Enraged: Vanessa Andreae wants the
websites closed down

Enraged: Vanessa Andreae wants the websites closed down
Part-time nurse Vanessa Andreae was extremely proud last week when she completed her first ever self-assessment tax return.

But her joy in filing it way before the end of January deadline turned to anger when she discovered she had been duped into using taxreturngateway.com, rather than the official Revenue & Customs site.

Vanessa, of Shepherd’s Bush, West London, who is married and has two teenage children, ended up paying £400 for her tax return to be processed even though she did all the work. Had she filed directly through the official site, she would have avoided the £400 fee and only had to pay her tax bill of approximately £2,000.

Vanessa, 42, says: ‘I feel angry but foolish at the same time. I felt quite smug after I had filed but I was a little concerned that I had been asked to pay £400.

‘It was only the morning after that the penny dropped – when I went online and saw the warning article that had been written about taxreturngateway.com in The Mail on Sunday.’

Enraged, she tried to ring taxreturngateway but she could not find a contact number. She also contacted Citizens Advice and Action Fraud. They told her that although they had received hundreds of calls on such copycat websites, they were powerless to act because no fraud had been committed.

Vanessa says: ‘There must be thousands of people like me who this year are tackling self-assessment for the first time and who would not think for one moment that copycat websites existed to trick you into paying fees you don’t have to. Such websites should be closed down.’

Late last week, James Wyatt, a director of Who4, the company that runs taxreturngateway, agreed to refund Vanessa’s £400 fee after The Mail on Sunday’s intervention. He insisted the tax return service he provided made the ‘process of submitting a tax return as stress free and easy as possible’.
Revenue & Customs said it was powerless to stop such websites from advertising on search engines such as Google – unless they were using their logo.

COMMENT: Shame on Google for turning a blind eye
Copycat Government websites are not illegal – but they exist to dupe consumers into thinking they are official. The result, as our special report confirms, is that thousands of people every month are paying over the odds for a range of Government services.
In most cases they are unable to get redress once they realise they’ve used a fee-charging unofficial website rather than the official Government agency. Action is necessary on many fronts to curb the antics of these copycat websites.

It’s heartening that the Advertising Standards Authority is looking at how consumers can be made better aware of the difference between commercial and Government agency websites. And it’s great that Conservative MP David Davis will be raising the issue in the House of Commons.

But more needs to be done, especially by internet search engines. It’s frankly unacceptable that the likes of Google are allowing copycat websites to pay for the privilege of appearing before the official websites, in the process earning the search engines lucrative – and undisclosed – amounts of income.
The internet is a consumer- empowering tool. But it’s also full of traps. Copycat websites need to be policed more vigilantly.