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Copycat websites paying to top Google search results

Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

Copycat ads are running rife on search engines and misleading consumers into paying more than they need to for health cards, driving licences and visas.

Which? searched on Google for common travel documents to see whether ads for copycat websites would appear. Copycat websites are those that closely mimic government or other official sites and charge people a fee to use them, even though the service they are offering is often free.

Which? found that copycat websites are paying for prime slots for their adverts at the top of search engines. This means ads for these sites often appear above the official website and with a similar web address. Consumers often click on these ads without realising they are not using the official website.

Overcharging consumers

Which? h found 18 ads overcharging consumers for services they can get for free through official channels. One of these ads was even proposing to break the law by offering a licence to drive in Spain without a driver’s test.

When Which? contacted the advertiser through its live chat service, posing as a UK motorist who had been banned from driving, the respondent claimed that for £685 (€800) they could use contacts at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) to wipe out the ban and get a new, clean driver’s licence. There is no evidence that the respondent had any contacts in the DVLA.

Two weeks after Which? reported the site to Action Fraud it was still live. It was also reported to the DVLA and Trading Standards before it finally disappeared.

The other ads were all reported to Google. Following this, there was one day when the top search results were the official websites. However, six weeks later there were 14 new copycat ads in their place, many of which appeared to be from the same companies as before, but with new URLs.

Travel scams

Three of the top six results on Google when Which? researchers searched for the Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) were trying to charge at least £30 each for it. The GHIC is available for free through the NHS.

One copycat website attempted to justify its costs by saying it was a ‘hassle’ to claim through the NHS. However, its process took longer at 10 to 14 days, rather than the seven to 10 days cited by the NHS website.

A similar issue occurred with visas. When Which? googled ‘UAE visa application’, the top results were for copycat websites charging up to £136 ($189) for a two-week visa, which British travellers can get for free on arrival.

Driving licence scams

Copycat ads for international and UK driving licences were also common. One copycat website told consumers they would need an international licence to drive in Spain, which they sold for £35 ($49).

This is misleading as unless UK drivers have an old-fashioned paper licence, they do not need any additional permit to drive in the EU. Many countries outside the EU do require an International Driving Permit (IDP) – but this costs just £5.50 from the Post Office.

A separate Which? investigation into DVLA copycat ads for drivers’ licence renewals in the UK found that almost three quarters (73%) of the most common driving licence renewal searches return ads for third-party websites charging £50 to £100 – seven times the official fee – to ‘check’ and renew licences.

Which? believes online platforms need to take more responsibility for the content they host, while online platforms should be legally required to verify businesses posting paid-for content before their ad is published.

The consumer champion says search engines must also provide clear, easy to use reporting tools for consumers to report ads which might breach their guidelines and cause consumer harm.

Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert, said: “Copycat ads have been a problem for years so it is concerning to see them still appearing at the top of search results – often ahead of the official website – and charging unnecessary fees.

“Search engines must take more responsibility for the ads that appear and verify the business before misleading ads are published in the first place. In the meantime, unfortunately it is on us to keep an eye out for copycat ads. If trying to renew a driver’s licence, get a health card or apply for a visa, make sure you are using the official website so you aren’t left footing any unnecessary bills.”