The internet has transformed the way we do everything from applying for a passport or birth certificate to taxing the car. But an epidemic of copycat websites is duping thousands of people into handing over huge extra fees for government services.
These sites have official-looking logos and use authentic-seeming addresses. Some even have links to real government websites.
Only the small print reveals that they are privately owned and often do no more than forward a simple form to official channels in exchange for fees that range from £20 for a TV licence to more than £1,000 for an income tax return.
Now ministers are being urged to crack down on the web copycats.
Calling for a Commons debate on the issue, Labour MP Chris Evans warned: “Copycat websites are a growing industry which exists purely to trick the public out of their hard-earned money.
“It thrives by using underhand methods to fool people into paying way over the odds for government services. In many cases the victims are too embarrassed to report being ripped off or simply do not know where to go to complain.”
Many sites stay within the law but others illegally copy officialpages to steal money and bank details. And in January three men were exposed charging £500 for an unnecessary “check and submission service”.
Customers tricked into using sites such as TaxReturnGateway.com – now closed – said official logos made them think they were on a real HMRC site and the charge would come off their tax bill.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah warned yesterday that the problem will get worse as more official services go online. “Universal Credit is one,” she said.
“Copycat websites for that, should it ever launch, will be a much bigger problem for the least privileged among us and the Government.”
Meanwhile, consumer champion and lawyer Dean Dunham says: “Fake websites are at the root of many emails I get from people who have been conned.
“It’s so easy to make a business or organisation look bigger and better online than it actually is. Anyone can build a good website that people look at and think ‘It must be OK.’”