Victims of rip-off copycat websites are being urged to put up a fight to get their money back.
The Mail on Sunday has been swamped with correspondence from readers following our investigation last month into tricksters who set up websites to look like official government sites – and then charge users inflated sums for services that should be free.
Among the many victims is Liz Young, from West Sussex, who fell foul of a website imitating the Canadian government’s service for ordering an electronic travel visa to the country – known as an Eta.
Liz Young fought hard to get her £40 back from the copycat website that charged her £80 for a £4 visa
Arranging her Eta just before a visit to her son and family in Ontario last September, she discovered she had been charged £80 – 20 times the usual price of seven Canadian dollars (£4).
Furious, she contacted the Canadian government, but it ‘could not or would not help’. She then directed her attention back to the copycat firm and demanded it refund her payment. She says: ‘It claimed I was paying for all sorts of extras. I said I did not want them.’
With the holiday season looming many families could be caught out like Liz – as they collect essential travel documents such as visas, passports, driving licences and European Health Insurance Cards.
They are being urged to double check the authenticity of websites they use before entering any personal and payment details.
The imposters trap the unwary with websites that look uncannily official and often appear at the top of internet search results. Such websites, justifying their fees on the checking of documents that they do, are not illegal. But many do mislead.
Often they include disclaimers stating they are not an official government service. But this information is usually buried in text well below the eye-catching online buttons that encourage people to click through to start the application – and payment – process.
Even when buyers reach the payment page, the amount they are being charged remains ambiguous. This is what happened to the Dhesi family, featured in our investigation last month, who paid £150 for two Etas that should have cost a total of £8.
Other families have come forward after being tricked by the website they used – Canada Access. Interestingly, Canada Access no longer offers the Eta service.
For some documents, such as the European Health Insurance Card, alarms bells should ring loudly for British travellers who land on a payment page. This card, which entitles the holder to the same state medical treatment as locals in European countries, is issued free by the UK Government.
Liz Young, who travelled to Canada with her daughter and granddaughter, refused to take no for an answer from the copycat website she ended up using. She demanded her money back.
She says: ‘I stuck to my guns because I am not wealthy and could ill afford to pay £80 for something that should have cost £4. It took some perseverance but I kept on at them and I got back £40.’
Chris and Mandy Larkin were caught out by an imposter website when buying an Eta before a trip to Toronto last summer
Liz no longer has the website details but her bank account showed the refund came from Etavisa-gov.ca and was paid in dollars.
She adds: ‘I count myself fortunate that I did not have my daughter and granddaughter’s passports handy when I arranged my Eta – and therefore only bought mine. I warned my daughter who was extremely careful when she applied for her Eta.’
Chris Larkin, 63, from Bridport in Dorset, was also caught out by an imposter website when buying his Eta before a trip to Toronto last summer. He paid £150 instead of just £8 for two Etas. He says: ‘I thought it was the Canadian government I was dealing with. It was only when I checked my credit card statement three weeks later that I realised what had happened.’
He says: ‘I had the added worry that the visas might not be valid. I took the website’s emails with me in case but fortunately they were not needed. The way they are allowed to do business this way is a disgrace.’
Chris attempted to retrieve his money via his bank but without success.
Some lookalike websites include reassuring wording about quibble-free refunds if made within a certain period – though this is unlikely to amount to a full repayment.
Consumers are being urged to double check the authenticity of websites they use
Mike Andrews, of the e-crime team at National Trading Standards, says it can be worth pestering hard for a refund. This is because many copycat operations do not want any adverse publicity which could impact on sales.
Where a buyer is tricked by a pure scam – which is when the ‘service’ simply runs off with your money with no documents to show for the payment – the chance of recompense from your card provider will be greater.
Hannah Maundrell works for consumer website Money. She says: ‘If you are left out of pocket, whether or not you get your money back can depend on what you were paying for and how you paid.
‘If you paid with a debit or credit card you might be covered by either the chargeback scheme or Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act – this would cover you if the goods or service you paid for were never available or if the seller disappeared.’
Alex Neill, a director of consumer group Which?, says more work needs to be done to stamp out copycat websites.
He adds: ‘While progress has been made, search engines and enforcement agencies must take action to prevent people from being caught out by unscrupulous operators. Copycats can still buy adverts on searches for some government services, so always check for “gov.uk” on the address for UK services and take nothing available on Google or other search engines for granted.’
We’ve been flooded with emails from readers following our investigation into tricksters
Google says: ‘Given we want the adverts people see to be useful and relevant, we have policies that prevent adverts for paid products or services that are available from a government or public sources for free or at a lower price. The only proviso is where they offer a clear added value. If we discover websites that are breaking this rule, we take appropriate action.’
A Bing spokesperson says users can complete a form on its website to report questionable ads – and that once alerted, it will remove those that breach its policies.
Travellers need to be particularly alert when searching online for the US electronic travel authorisation – called an Esta.
This vital digital document for anyone planning travel to the United States has proved a goldmine for copycats and scammers. Many imposter websites pop up in online search results.
The Esta, which is valid for two years, costs just $14 (£10) if purchased through the official US government website. It needs to be organised at least 72 hours before departure. But the internet is awash with imitators that are raking in fortunes from unsuspecting travellers.
Jane Martin (name changed), from Lincoln, fell into this trap, paying a lookalike – ‘US-visa-application.org’ – $60 (£44.50). During the application process she was given no indication of any added ‘service’ charge – with only the standard $14 Esta fee highlighted.
She says: ‘When I made the payment I understood I was authorising a credit card payment of $14. I only discovered the charge was $60 when I received an email from the website. I complained immediately and requested that $46 be returned.’
Jane is still waiting to hear the outcome but she is not holding her breath. She adds: ‘Had the website been up-front about its charges I would not have gone ahead. Basically it tricked me.’
Only a deeply-buried disclaimer reveals the website is not affiliated to the US Government and informs applicants they can use the official website instead. But there is no mention of the official website’s address.
The copycat’s wording informs users that if they do opt for the official route ‘you won’t benefit from our additional support and services’. The Mail on Sunday attempted to contact the website to discover what these ‘services’ include. The phone number on the website did not work and email contact was ignored.
Jane at least received her Esta and was able to travel. Others have not been so lucky. Reader Derek Joy recently paid $79 to website usvisaesta.net but no Esta was forthcoming.
He says: ‘I should have been in Florida last week to compete in a sailing race but instead I have had to stay at home following the race online. It does not have quite the same buzz as being there.’
When to be suspicious
If a web address starts with just ‘http’ and not ‘https’ – especially on the page where you are asked for payment details – alarm bells should ring. The ‘s’ is an indicator your data will be encrypted. But some copycats do use encryption.
– Look for a green padlock icon in the address bar. If this security icon is missing then resist entering personal and banking details.
– Watch out for spelling mistakes or broken English. This is a sure sign of an amateur or fly-by-night at work.
– Tread carefully when clicking through from paid-for advert links. Copycat services often pay to appear at the top of search listings. Search engines say they weed them out but recent research by consumer group Which? discovered that they still appear in many popular searches for key travel documents.
– Check a website home page for a ‘disclaimer’ admitting it is not associated with any official service. They include this to protect themselves from complaints. But it often appears well below more prominent information such as the online button for clicking to application pages. National Trading Standards says disclaimers do not mean copycat websites are immune from prosecution.
– Watch out for links from copycat services to official websites. Some copycats include these to lend an air of authenticity to their business.
– Try to take screenshots from the website at various stages of the process. It may help with getting a refund.
-Report falling victim to a copycat website to national scam reporting centre Action Fraud. It will issue a police reference number though this does not mean your complaint will be investigated.
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