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When caveat emptor equally applies online

Are the controls on so-called copycat websites strong enough?

It would appear not, given that they sell an essentially worthless service, yet seem to be thriving.

Members of the public seeking to carry out an increasing range of basic government functions online are being tricked into paying inflated fees by web-based companies which mimic the language and style of official sites.

The problem is aided by online search engines listing firms who advertise with them ahead of the official government sites.

Whether applying for a driving licence, renewing a passport, or seeking copies of birth or marriage certificates, if you search online, you are likely to see other companies' sites listed before the official ones.

Enter the search term "apply for a UK passport" and the official site, which charges £72.50, is listed third, behind three sites which charge anything up to £70 on top of the actual fee, often for little more than printing your information on a form and sending it back to you. Many people who have been taken in have mistakenly thought they were paying for their passport, only to realise they have paid only the web company's fee.

Online firms are also charging more than £20 for helping people apply for the European Health Information Cards, which permit travellers free medical care, when they are available free of charge on an official site.

This is all legitimate business practice. The firms involved are acting legally as long as they spell out what additional service they provide in order to justify a fee. This can be a check-and-send service of the sort available at Post Offices for a few pounds, or merely the ability to track an order's progress online. Sites must provide a link to the government site, while making clear they have no official affiliation to it, and should point out that the service is available there at less cost. Needless to say, this is usually in small print and often only on the home page where a large "apply now" button is far more prominent.

The agencies involved are not happy about this: Her Majesty's Passport Office has made several complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. But the ASA can only name and shame, rather than impose fines or a ban, and then only if advertising is deemed misleading. For the most part it talks simply of "raising awareness".

At present, Google indicates such sites with the subtlest of pink shading to denote they are advertisers. This is a better measure of their commitment to tackling the problem than any company protestations about demanding advertisers be transparent.

So, at present, this seems to be a case of caveat emptor.

Customers should beware of entering valuable personal data into the files of companies they are not sure of. They should beware of sites that lack government branding: the Crown logo, and the .gov.uk are protected and appear only on official websites.

Above all, they should beware of not reading the small print before hurrying to press the bright and inviting button labelled "apply now".

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