Calls for review of copycat websites from West Midlands MPs
MPs are calling for a review of unofficial 'copycat' websites that charge people hefty fees to 'process' their passport applications.
Trading standards officers across the West Midlands are also warning people to check they are not falling victim to services that charge them needlessly for help with official documents.
People are reporting that when they search online for passports and driving licences, they are instead clicking on the sites of private companies who then offer to process the application.
The websites are not illegal but they charge people for a verification service they often do not need.
The Advertising Standards Agency labels them 'copycat sites'.
Someone searching for 'passport' on Google will be offered two private companies' websites before the official government one for renewing a passport.
Some websites stress that they are not affiliated with the Government in any way.
Passport-uk.co.uk, which is one of the services to have come in for criticism, has a disclaimer on its website informing people that 'a similar checking service can be obtained from a Post Office at a reduced fee or you can apply without a checking service where there will be no checking fee payable.
We are not affiliated with Post Office, HMPO or any government body'.
It wants a £69 administration fee but also states that the Post Office would do it fee free, other than the standard £72.50 that both would charge. For the money, customers get their applications checked prior to submission and multi-lingual staff.
Another, passportdirect.org.uk, also charges the £69 'administration' fee. Dudley North MP Ian Austin is going to ask the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee to look at the matter while South Staffordshire's Gavin Williamson is writing to Home Secretary Theresa May. Mr Austin said: "The Government needs to do everything it can to protect people from falling victim to this kind of thing.
"I will ask the Home Affairs Select Committee to look into it. I am concerned because at this time of year hard working people in the Black Country are planning their holidays and will be looking to renew their passports."
Mr Williamson added: "I've had a number of complaints from South Staffordshire residents. It's not just passports but tax returns for self assessment as well. It's very misleading and, whether intentionally or not, people are using these services in the belief that they are actually using a Government website."
Trading Standards officers in Walsall are advising people to make sure they are on the genuine website and not a lookalike site or service providers sites that will charge for their services.
To find the official sites it is best to go to www.gov.uk and to select the service required, rather than doing a general search on Google, Bing or Yahoo.
Public protection councillor Zahid Ali said: "Our Trading Standards officers can take action on misleading websites, but if the correct information is included on websites customers should check very carefully before they commit as they may not be able to obtain redress."
Sandwell Council's trading standards head Councillor Paul Moore said: "When you search the web, always take a moment to check that you are in a legitimate website and scroll past the sponsored results at the top."
There have also been concerns raised to Wolverhampton Trading Standards by people who have used websites other than the Government's official site to book driving tests. An administration fee is levied by the third party organisation which books the test, but this can be done without an administration fee through the official government site.
Andy Jervis, Wolverhampton's head of regulatory services, said: "We would always advise people to be very cautious and stick to official government sites when making transactions like renewing passports and other documentation or arranging things like driving tests.
"Regarding passports, we would advise anyone who does require a checking service to use the Post Office. Although it will incur a small charge, this will be much less than that levied by the unofficial websites. People who qualify for a free passport, such as those born on or before 2 September, 1929, also qualify for a free check-and-send service from the Post Office.
"Equally, driving tests can be arranged quickly and easily through the official government website, and we would urge people do this rather than face paying an additional fee for the privilege."
The Advertising Standards Authority said it had received around 700 complaints in the past 12 months about transparency and pricing on copycat websites.
ASA director of advertising policy and practice, Shahriar Coupal, said: "Complaints that we are receiving are about people being misled as to the nature of the service being offered, a feeling that they might be official services when actually they are not
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