Five scammers have been arrested for running copycat websites that aim to rip off consumers looking to buy government services online.
The websites charged excessive fees for tax returns, driving licences and passport applications.
Copycat websites in general are cleverly designed to look just like official government web pages but add extra charges for services consumers could otherwise have got for less, or for free, through the official websites.
Citizens Advice received more than 2,000 complaints about such websites in the first three months of 2014. Year-on-year figures were not available for comparison, but the organisation said it usually deals with 1,700 cases a year.
According to Surrey County Council, victims in the county have paid £19,000 to copycat websites so far this year; applying the figures to the rest of the UK population, it said that could equate to £2.8 million nationally.
One victim from Surrey paid £220 for a passport, triple the usual £72.50 cost. Another paid five times the official cost of replacing a driving licence, reported the county council.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: "Copycat government websites rob people of their money and make an ordeal out of straightforward tasks. It is completely unacceptable that unscrupulous firms are looking to exploit people as they go about their day-to-day lives and do important jobs like renewing a passport."
She added: "Filling in official forms online is supposed to make life easier, but it can be really hard to tell if a website is genuine. If you're in any doubt then don't hand over any of your personal details or money. Anyone who thinks they have been duped by one of these opportunistic sites can go to their local Citizens Advice Bureau or call our Consumer Service."
The Consumer Service phone number is 03454 04 05 06.
Tips on spotting copycat websites from Surrey County Council
- Do not automatically opt to use the first website(s) you find in a search engine and look out for paid adverts. Quite often the official site is the first or the second non-paid link.
- Read the homepage of the website – some admit to not being affiliated with the official body.
- Take your time to look for the official website. Most can be found on the Gov.uk website.
- Don't be fooled by a .org web address. This doesn't guarantee it's an official site.
- Check to see if the web address begins with 'https', as this acts as an encryption to protect personal details and is used by official websites.