These firms appear on search engines such as Google and Bing, dressed as official agencies. They then let you unnecessarily fill in applications and pay the 'cost' via them, slipping in their own hefty charges on top. For example, with EHIC, copycat sites often charge £20 to process an application you can easily do for nowt via the NHS.
So you need to be very careful when searching online. One rule of thumb is to not click the 'ad' section on search engines if you're looking for official sites. On Google, for example, paid ads appear at the top of results, usually with small, yellow ad logos on big. Scroll down and the natural search results – which is what you want - appear below the thin grey line. Usually the official sites appear here, as they don’t pay to appear at the top.
2. How do they get away with it?
Technically these sites aren't unlawful, even though I think they should be. The regulator says it's not illegal for firms to charge for reviewing and forwarding services.
However businesses do have to make it clear that they're not affiliated to the Government, and explain it's possible to apply for free or less through official sites.
That’s why if you look closely they’ll always say something like "not affiliated with Gov.uk" or "we charge a service fee of £40 for additional benefits".
3. What are the big services to watch out for?
Here are the top ten services you need to watch out for when applying online:
THE TOP 10 Copycat SITE TYPES
Service:EHICs (European Health Insurance Cards) - treatment in EU at same cost as local Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): 42% How much? Always FREE What copycats charge: c.£25 Legit help:Free EHICs
Service: Passports applications & renewals Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): 28% How much? Up to £137 What copycats charge: Up to £235 Legit help:Passports
Service:Driving licences applications & renewals Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): 18% How much? £20 What copycats charge: Up to £80 Legit help:Driving Licences
Service:ESTAs (US travel permit) Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): 12% How much? $14 What copycats charge: Up to $120 Legit help:ESTA
Service: Birth & Marriage certificate copies Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): 7% How much? £9 What copycats charge: £14 Legit help:Gov.uk
Service: Holiday visas (for many countries) (b) Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): 6% How much? Typically £10-£150 What copycats charge: Up to £60 extra Legit help:Gov.uk
Service: Driving theory test bookings Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): 5% How much? £31 What copycats charge: Up to £60 Legit help:DVLA
Service: London congestion charge payments Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): 5% How much? Up to £12/day What copycats charge: Up to £20/day Legit help:TfL
Service: Filing your tax return Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): 5% How much? Always FREE What copycats charge: Up to £1,000 for submission service Legit help:HMRC
Service: Vehicle tax discs Percentage of people caught/nearly caught (a): N/A (c) How much? Typically £10 - £1,000 What copycats charge: Up to £100 extra Legit help:Vehicle Tax
a) This is the % of the 1,750 people in my poll saying they've been caught or nearly caught by at least one of these
b) I suspect it's larger than this, as many people use copycat sites but don't realise
c) Not included in my poll.
4. Oh no I’ve been caught out. Can I get my money back?
In short it’s very difficult to get a refund, although I have heard of a few successes. Email straightaway saying you want to cancel your contract and get a refund, explaining you didn't realise you were paying for a service you that you could get for free or cheaper directly.
Also, check the site's terms. A few said they would refund people who cancelled within seven days. If so, email right away. Beware calling their expensive phone lines though.
If you’re still hitting a brick wall you're more likely to get a refund if you kick up a fuss (always be polite, but firm) and email several times. Or call them provided it’s not a premium rate number. You could even try involving your MP. If you feel you were duped you also have a right to take them to the small claims court, yet there is a fee for that (which is refunded if you win) and sadly it is an arduous process for a relatively small amount of cash.