Scam Watch: Copycat websites

Today, figures from the Office for National Statistics show that three-quarters (74%) of Brits have bought goods or services online so far in 2014 - a jump from 53% in 2008.

But there are unscrupulous individuals and businesses online who want to take advantage and rip you off.

At Moneywise, we regularly hear from readers who have been duped by websites offering all manner of deals, which - in most cases - are too good to be true, leaving them out of pocket and nervous about shopping online.

To get you up to speed with what to look out for when using the web, we spoke to one of the UK's leading experts on online security about some of the scams currently targeting web users and what you can do to
stay safe.

Mike Andrews is the national co-ordinator of the National Trading Standards eCrime team. Since its formation two years ago, the group has led the fight against online crooks who prey on people's naivety online, pursuing criminals and bringing them to court.

So what sort of scams are people falling for and how does the eCrime unit help? Here we look at the dangers of copycat websites.

Have you been scammed? Let the Moneywise Scam Watch team know by emailing

Copycat websites

How often have you trawled the web and clicked on the first link you see at the top of your search page? Perhaps when you were looking to renew your passport or apply for a driving licence? Some consumers have been tricked into paying well over the odds for services they could get for free via official sites.

By mimicking legitimate government websites such as the DVLA, web users are being tricked into using these 'services' without realising they aren't the legitimate websites.

Often these sites will try to mirror the official pages as much as possible and will have paid cash to appear as a sponsored link at the top of search engine list, adding to the impression that it is legitimate.

"Until quite recently, these sites have been very successful," Andrews says.

"Around 40% of consumers don't know how sponsored links work and are clicking on them. You then pay a sizeable fee for a little or no service at all – for example, some we've seen charge up to £1,000 to check your tax return is filled in correctly.

"If you were to go to the actual government site, then it would tell you that you had provided incorrect information for free."

Andrews says copycat sites that people complain about most are those offering help for new passports, driving licences, tax returns, and European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs), which are free to order from the official EHIC site.

Who's falling victim to these scam sites? "Everybody, from professional, well-educated people to youngsters who are looking to get their driving licence for the first time," Andrews says.

"If you are looking for government services, always make sure you check the site first."

What can you do to stay safe?

  • Act online as you would do if you were shopping on the high street. If someone came up to you in the street offering
  • you some diet pills for free, you would just walk on by so why cough up online?
  • Make sure you use official websites and don't automatically click on the first search result you see. Often the official sites appear third or fourth in the list.
  • Don't pass on your bank details unless you are absolutely sure the company is legitimate - and even then it's usually better to pay by credit card. Purchases of more than £100 are automatically covered by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, so should anything go wrong, your card provider can refund you. For smaller transactions, PayPal can provide similar peace of mind.

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