SHYSTER SITES: A web savvy, money saving expert would not pay for a service which they can do for free by themselves.
But, that is exactly how copycat websites can cost you money. They charge a fee to process, or to renew, official documents that are in fact ‘gratis’.
Copycat websites, and other misleading sites, use imitation and likeness to trick users. So, how easy is it for a fake government website to fool consumers and how can you spot a copycat website?
You do not need to be a computer geek to identify a fraudster website. But, you do need to learn a few basic steps.
A copycat website will offer the same services as many of the government departments (e.g. HMRC). But, the lookalike copycats will not be the ‘official site’.
It is easy to get fooled by the reproduction. It will look like a dead ringer for the official website. But, it is a copy (almost a carbon copy).
How do the website fraudsters make money? In most cases, they charge a premium to conduct the same services offered for free by a genuine agency. In doing so, it is difficult to see any tangible benefits for the customer to pay the fee.
Some ways copycat websites accomplish this:
They need to achieve high positions in the search engines (e.g. Google, Bing, Yahoo). The use of some website tools helps them rank high on the page. Often, the position ranks above the actual authority website.
What is the outcome? The copycat site appears to be the ‘authorised’ government site and gets the mouse click by a consumer.
There are other cunning ways that shyster sites imitate and impersonate. Some have a website address designed to confuse customers with the official website. To the untrained eye, the spitting image will feature a similar look and feel. Often, the brand design will be mimicking the original.
Being Mislead by Copycat Websites
The number of complaints made to government services is increasing. People have been complaining about the cost of being mislead by website copies.
But here’s the kicker:
They reveal cases of high charges for access to public services by knockoff sites. In almost all cases, accessing the exact same service through the official GOV.UK website is free. In cases where there is a charge, the official site turns out to be a lot cheaper.
Common complaints about the replicas include:
- People feeling duped into believing the sites were in fact, the official government-run service.
- People feeling that third-party websites failed to provide any extra monetary value for a paid service.
Most consumers would end up on a rogue site after clicking a ‘sponsored advert’. This would be the typical type of ad paid for in a Google Adwords campaign. It is one of the recognised methods of Search Engine Optimisation.
Why do the shysters pay for this type of advertisement? As a rule, it means their website would appear at the top of the page and above the normal search results.
Google is the largest search engine used in the United Kingdom, by far. The Government Digital Service is working with the search engine giant to tackle the problem.
Note: Google now bans adverts for copycat websites if the company charges for an otherwise free government services.
Giving Feedback on Google Adwords Ads
Google developers are keen to hear from anyone who feels misled by any Adwords ads. You can provide feedback on misleading ‘paid adverts’ that appear above organic search results.
Jailing Copycat Website Fraudsters
Despite being against the rules of fair trading, many copycat websites still appear. Those that do, should display that the service they offer is also available free of charge (or for a lesser fee).
So, what deceptive trickery do they use to get around this one? As you may have guessed, many will display the price advisory in small font at the footer of the page. Even worse, many others still fail to announce it at all.
Several government agencies have already taken action against copycat websites. They issued complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The offenders had not completely plagiarized all the website content of the official page. But, they had copied the official logo and the agency branding.
It gets better:
As a result, the National Trading Standards eCrime Team carried out an investigation. The outcome of the NTSeCT probe ended in significant jail sentences for six of the offenders.
Top Tips to Identify Copycat Websites
There are several ways to avoid becoming a victim. Checking the source of the site and following these 5 tips will help you spot a copycat website:
- Check the results served as an answer to your search query by the search engine. Be mindful of what paid adverts look like. As a rule, they appear as ‘boxed adverts’ at the very top of the page and have a pastel coloured background. It is not uncommon for the legitimate site to appear underneath the boxed or the sponsored ads.
- Do not trust that the top ranking website is the authentic version. Most web savvy money saving experts would examine at least 50% of the web results on the first page. Reading through the title and description can reveal a lot of information about the site.
- Take a close look at the beginning of the website address in the browser. Does it start with http:// or https://? The secure version would begin with https://. It has encryption to protect your personal details when filling in application forms.
- Inspect the web address extension (URL). There is no guarantee that a .org extension is a legitimate website for the official body. But, as a rule, an official government website will have a .gov.uk web address.
- After clicking through to the site, take a few moments to read all the text on the homepage (from top to bottom). Make sure you check the site before you start filling in an application form. You may see text on an unofficial site that states it has no affiliation with the official body.
Examples of Copycat Websites
Take a look at this list containing some of the top copycat sites to avoid. Once you learn how to spot a copycat website it will help to safeguard you from other Internet scams and get safe online.
- Birth, marriage, and death certificates
- Driving licences
- Driving theory tests
- Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)
- European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC)
- Fishing licences
- London Congestion Charge payments
- Passport applications
Copycat Tax Return Website Examples
- It is not uncommon to see HMRC tax returns and self-assessment forms appear on a copied site. But, you must register online or at a tax office before you can pay HMRC.
What are the Risks?
With a little insight, there is no valid reason to get misled. There are ways to avoid paying excessive prices for official services. Always use the government department or the local government site. That is where you will find the correct price.
Don’t get fooled into believing that it will speed up a particular process or application. In most cases, you will be able to do it as quick and easy by yourself.
Falling Victim to a Copycat Website
There are several steps you can take if you feel that you got misled. Having overpaid, as a result of using one of the unofficial websites, you can:
- Contact the copycat site and tell them that you think they misinformed you. Be polite but firm, and insist on a full refund.
- Report the copycat website. You can contact the relevant government department, organisation, or agency.
Note: In fairness, it can be very difficult to get a full refund. You will find the company reluctant to give back any payments. But, do not delay contact them as many will refund people who cancel within seven (7) days.