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Concern mounts over impersonation websites

21/02/14

Concern is mounting in Parliament about an unwelcome consequence of digital public services - private companies setting up websites which at first glance resemble official channels - but then hit users with a hefty bill.

According to a research note published by Parliament, the Advertising Standards Authority has recently taken action against "copycat" services claiming to be affiliated with the Passport Office, the General Register Office, the Intellectual Property Office and Land Registry.

However no criminal prosecution has yet been brought.

The research note highlights the existence of intermediary sites which rank highly in searches for European health cares, booking a driving theory test or renewing a passport. The sites - legally - offer to check, review and forward applications for a fee. However many are less than transparent about how they work.

Stella Creasey, shadow minister for consumer affairs, told Parliament of a constituent who filed a tax return through a commercial site which "looks suspiciously like the real deal". The constituent was charged £500 for filling in her tax return, "and only after she had paid it was she told that that was the fee for the service, not the tax return itself".

The research note points out that is illegal to deliberately mislead the public and to obtain money by fraud. "This means that traders must be clear about the product or service they are offering, and they should not trick consumers into spending money for services they do not want." But while unfair and misleading practices are prohibited by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs), enforceable through the civil and criminal court, no prosecutions appear to have been brought.

The note also reveals that in 2012 the Office of Fair Trading abandoned "on administrative priority grounds" an investigation into websites charging for free or cheaper government services.

Answering questions on the issue, Nick Hurd, junior Cabinet Office minister, told Parliament: "Officials in the Government Digital Service (GDS) are leading a cross-government exercise to gather information about the operation of third-party websites offering services associated with official government services. This research will guide our work to address the issue and the government's engagement with the internet search, engine providers that carry advertisements for the services of these unofficial providers.

"Where government has become aware of websites that make misleading claims in their advertising it has brought these complaints to the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority. Government has and continues to take direct action to prevent the misuse of Government logos or any suggestion of affiliation with government by these websites.

http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06826/websites-charging-for-government-services

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