A clampdown on online hoaxers who con people out of money via faked copycat Government websites has led to five arrests.
People trying to order official documents such as passports and car tax discs or book driving tests are being taken in and left out of pocket by fraudsters who have mocked up sites which seem like the genuine Government version.
The National Trading Standards Board (NTSB) said the five arrests made last week were under the Fraud Act and for consumer protection from unfair trading regulations. All five people are on police bail.
It comes after more than 5,700 complaints, largely to do with cons involving tax returns, driving licences and passports, were made to Citizens Advice and to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
In an effort to force the fraudsters out of business NTSB chairman Lord Harris said its eCrime team is now “making it as difficult as possible for these online hoaxers to operate” and the Government today launches an awareness campaign.
It includes a video warning people to be alert to the misleading websites. They often use URLs that include fragments such as ‘govuk’, ‘directgov’ or relevant organisation names.
Similar design features are also included to look and feel like the official sites.
Lord Harris said: “We have been working with search engines such as Google and Bing to remove adverts from online search results and we continue to gather intelligence across the country to help tackle this issue.
“We urge you to avoid unofficial websites which could leave you out of pocket or at risk of identity theft. Only use the GOV.UK website to find Government services. If you come across copycat websites, report them to Citizens Advice.”
Martin Lewis, creator of the consumer financial advice site MoneySavingExpert, urged people not to use search engines but to go directly to the official Government site and search for the information they need there.
He said: “Sadly, vigilance is necessary even when using official services. Copycat websites disguise themselves as the real thing, but charge you for a useless service. I’ve lost count of the number of people who contact me upset and want to know how to get their cash back.”
Consumer Affairs minister Jo Swinson said: “It’s great that it’s becoming easier and more common to use the internet to order official documents such as passports or tax discs, but people should be aware of rogue websites that are out there trying to exploit them and take their hard-earned cash and even put them at risk of identity theft.
“The enforcement action which the National Trading Standards eCrime team has taken demonstrates the Government’s commitment to tackling these scammers. We will not let them get away with misleading consumers.”
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “Which? has been calling for action against those conning consumers with copycat websites, so we’re glad that some action is now being taken.
“For too long the people behind copycat websites have got away with misleading consumers into paying potentially hundreds of pounds for services that should be free.
“Simply punishing those committing this crime isn’t enough – people who have been duped by these sites should also get a full refund of the money they were misled into paying.”