Stockton Council’s Trading Standards are warning residents to be extra vigilant when applying for official documents or services online.
The warning comes after a sharp rise in the number of complaints to trading standards about copycat websites which charge a premium fee for local and central government services such as online tax returns, passport renewals, driving licence applications, car tax applications and European health insurance cards. Other websites reported to trading standards involve applying for fishing licences, disabled blue badges and driving theory tests.
These copycat sites often look similar to the genuine sites but charge a premium fee, often for doing very little for the extra charge.
All the sites investigated by Stockton Council’s trading standards do state somewhere on the front page that they are not official and will charge a service fee - for processing the application and forwarding it on to the official body on the customer’s behalf.
Despite this, warning statements can be easily overlooked especially when some of the sites mimic the official websites in their layout and design.
The extra fees charged by these websites vary but can be hundreds of pounds more than the service offered by the official site. One resident was charged £141.50 for renewing a passport online on a copycat site where the cost on the official site is £72.50.
Catherine Poppleton from Hartburn, Stockton recently applied for a fishing licence online. The website she used turned out to be copycat site which mimicked the style and design of the Environment Agency’s official site. She paid £47 for the licence which should have cost £27.
Catherine said: “I was really annoyed when I realised what had happened and that I had been taken in. The copycat website was very clever as it looked like the official site. This has definitely made me think again about applying online and I will certainly double check any site I visit when applying online in the future.”
Councillor Steve Nelson, Stockton Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing and Community Safety, said “There is a wide range of these copycat sites covering almost every service carried out by central and local government. Many of these services can be done for free or at a much lower cost on the official website so take extra care when applying online. Read the website carefully to see if you are on the official site and check that there are no additional administration fees quoted.”
Anyone who feels that they have been misled by a copycat site can report the matter to the Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 08454 04 05 06 or online at www.adviceguide.org.uk