Don't get caught by copycat websites- especially when filing your Self Assessment return by 31 January
If there’s one thing the new year hasn’t seen the back of, it’s scams, and the most recent scam-a-la-mode is the copycat website scam.
Scam sites can cover anything, but their weapon of choice tends to be governmental type document completion, ideally where there is a fee to be paid. Recent scam sites found included provisional driving licence, European health cards and passports as well as congestion charge and even self-assessment tax return sites.
Last week, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against paylondoncongestion.co.uk, which charges drivers a premium for paying the London Congestion Charge- costing £16 instead of £10 for driving into London, or £20 instead of £12 to pay the next day. However, paylondoncongestion.co.uk has declined to take any notice whatsoever of the ASA ruling.
The ASA told This is Money: “In 99 per cent of cases, advertisers comply immediately. But in this instance, Paylondoncongestion has not. We are disappointed. The website still does not make it clear that it is unofficial”. Unfortunately, many of the other tools at the ASA’s disposal do not hit scurrilous companies where it hurts- in the bottom line- with ‘naming and shaming’ the firm or paying for ASA adverts to appear in internet searches alongside those of the scam website to warn potential users away, not likely to be as effective as a fine. The ASA do have redress to the Trading Standards Institute who can take statutory action and issue fines, but by that time, the tricksters are likely to have disappeared back into the woodwork.
But some claim that much of the problem could be easily solved by search engines. If scam websites didn’t appear above the official site, far fewer people would be tricked into spending more than they need to, or even losing money altogether- and some think the likes of Google should act.
Mike Walker googled "hmrc” to file his tax return. He clicked on the top result, taxreturngateway.com, and realised too late that it was not the official government site. He told The Guardian: "It looked very similar, but it was only once I'd gone through the process of filing my return and made a payment of £400 that I realised it wasn't the same."
However, while the site has clearly paid for its premium position above the organic results, is it, or Google, breaking any laws? Taxreturngateway.com clearly states on its home page that "We are not connected to or affiliated with HMRC, DWP or any other official government body. We offer a bespoke, value for money, tax return assistance service for which we levy a charge." They highlight that HMRC filing is free and even have a link back to the HMRC site. They claim they are providing a tax return completion service, for a fee, and it’s not their fault if people can’t read properly. Caveat emptor and all that jazz.
Google reportedly removed taxreturngateway.com from its advertising spots last month, but reinstated the site after investigating complaints.
So what do you think? Are people caught by these scams just victims of an online version of survival of the fittest or should someone somewhere take some action to stop them? Preferably with a few more teeth than the ASA.
Oh, and don’t forget to file your tax return online with HMRC by 31 January 2014.