How to spot rip-off copycat websites

UK driving licence replacement costs

A cross-party committee of MPs has called for more to be done to stop copycat websites duping people into paying for services that should be free.

The transport select committee says the government must do more to warn motorists about the sites, and that Google should demote them in its list of search results.

When users go online to, say, apply for a driving licence, they often use a search engine such as Google to find the right site. Often, though, the list of search results is headed by a fake site with a very similar name and layout, which charges for its services. Customers often don't realise they're paying over the odds.

Increase in complaints

The committee was looking in particular at the work of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) and the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA). And, it was told by the AA, there has been an increase in complaints about sites that "ply a trade that basically tricks people".

Some sites, says the committee, offer a genuine service by checking or fast-tracking services. However, there are many more that don't.

There are already efforts to close such services down, with the Government Digital Service (GDS) tracking their activity and passing it on to search engines so that the sites can be delisted. Meanwhile, the National Trading Standards Board has been given extra funding to clamp down on such sites.

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Many are fooled

But, says shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh, "Drivers deserve better, and this report is clear that ministers need to stamp out copycat websites and ensure motoring agencies have the tools they need to keep rogues off our roads."

This summer, a survey carried out for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) revealed that as many as half of those who come into contact with some copycat websites are fooled by them.

"While it's reassuring that our research shows that many people's online searching tactics protect them from navigating to copycat sites, we can't ignore the fact that some are still misled into accessing sites they thought were official," commented Miles Lockwood, the ASA's director of complaints and investigations.

So how can you be sure that you're not being ripped off?

Spotting the scammers

If you've got the correct website address from an offical source, you can just type it in and you're sorted. If you find it through a search engine, though, you'll need to be a bit more careful.

First, steer clear of the paid search results at the top of the page (labelled with a yellow 'Ad' button on Google): these won't be the real thing. Often, the genuine site is two or three entries down in the list of non-paid results.

And check the format of the address. Most copycat sites have a web address that's similar to the real thing - but sometimes with a .org or .co.uk suffix. Any genuine government website should have a .gov.uk address.

Once you're on a site, check it over carefully. Non-genuine websites are required to make it clear that they're not the official site. But be careful: some don't, and even those that do have such a disclaimer often tuck the information away unobtrusively.

Finally, check the site to see whether it has the department, agency or council's correct logo and contact details; although some copycats have been prosecuted for copying logos and branding too. Last but not least, compare prices - the genuine site will be cheaper or free.

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