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Internet: Copycat Websites

Volume 749: debated on Thursday 21 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to discourage customers from using copycat websites that charge for services, such as European Health Insurance Cards, that are provided free of charge by government departments.

My Lords, most users access digital government services via the major search engines. This user behaviour has been used to inform the design of so that government services consistently come at the top of search results. Easy access to and education about the official source of digital government services is the main way the Government protect users from inadvertently using non-official sites. The Government will continue to take action against websites that misrepresent their relationship with government and misuse government logos.

I thank my noble friend for that reply, but is he aware that if he googles “European Health Insurance Card”, the first two or three sites that he will come to will charge him something more than £20 for the card, whereas if he goes down to the National Health Service official site, he can get one for free? There are other examples of this, most notably passport applications where one can pay well over £40 for something that one can do oneself for nothing or go through the Post Office and pay just over £8 for help with filling in the form. Does my noble friend agree that some of these sites, to a non-legal eye anyway, come very close to passing themselves off as the official site? Would not the solution be for the Government to make sure that their site, even if it costs money with Google, always comes first on the list?

My Lords, I spent some time on Tuesday afternoon looking at some of these sites. I confirm I had not realised—no doubt a number of noble Lords have not realised—that the first two or three sites to come up on the list are sponsored ads, which is indicated in very, very small print. In all cases, the top site of the non-sponsored ads was the website. I also checked a number of the sponsored ads, which are extremely well designed. They all say that they are not an official website, but it is quite easy if you are in a hurry to miss that paragraph. Perhaps I should add that Transport for London also suffers from this if you are paying your congestion charge. I suspect that one or two noble Lords have paid more than they should for their congestion charge on one or two occasions.

My Lords, the Government could pay, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, suggested, which perhaps would drive up the cost of sponsored ads—or perhaps they could intervene and forbid search engines from carrying sponsored ads in that place. I think that we would be hesitant to do that. The Government are in constant dialogue with Google. We look at these sites and check on the number of complaints—and after agreement with Google a number of these sites have been removed. The subtle design of them clearly is improving.

My Lords, I share the concern about copycat websites, but is my noble friend aware that there are occasions when the Government make money out of services that should be free? Surely, what is right for the private goose should be right for the government gander. For example, for many years now, government departments and agencies have been using 0870 high-rate telephone numbers. This has resulted in a change, but I understand from a news item this month that some £56 million is already being made by government out of services that ought to be free to the citizen and taxpayer. It is outrageous that this continues. Will my noble friend give an assurance that it will be dealt with?

My Lords, I do not want to be tempted down the road of what the Government should charge for and what we should provide free. The Government do, after all, charge for renewing a passport—one of the most frequent areas in which other services then charge on top of the government fee if you answer a sponsored ad by mistake.

My Lords, should the Government not now call time on the people who operate these sites? I suggest that the Government speak to the internet providers and tell them not to accept these sponsored ads. Secondly, can the Government and TfL not refuse to accept the payment? That would solve the problem.

My Lords, I am not entirely sure that I am familiar with the legal subtleties of this. A number of government agencies and authorities have looked in detail at this and we are in constant dialogue with the search engines about these sites. As I said, they are extremely well designed and all of them claim to offer additional services, but there are occasional complaints that the additional services are not fully provided.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I became a victim of a TfL scam on congestion charging some three weeks ago? When I phoned my bank to stop the payment, I was told that it could not be stopped because the money was taken at point of sale. It is quite disgraceful that these people are able to do this. Will my noble friend do all that he can to marginalise the perpetrators of these scams?

My Lords, the Government Digital Service, by whom I was fully briefed for this Question, is actively working with other departments of government to see how far it can control this. Of course, not all of these sites are hosted within the UK. We are familiar with many overseas agencies that get into the ether and do this.

My Lords, in the dash to digital by default, will the Government remember that in addition to some people not even being connected to the internet, others are very unfamiliar with using it for business? They are vulnerable to these people taking advantage of them. Will the Government, therefore, in addition to monitoring this, ensure that there are easy routes to redress and compensation when such a service has been mis-sold?

My Lords, these scams are concentrated on the sort of services that people access only occasionally—to renew driving licences, passports, the European Health Insurance Card and those sorts of things. There are also phishing efforts in which sites that claim to be HMRC say that you are offered a refund—I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, has fallen for that; he looks as though he might have done—and ask for your bank details. They then manage to gain access to your account.

My Lords, as another person who has inadvertently been involved, although not with congestion charging, the question that came to my mind was not how much the Government are discussing the matter with Google, but why the Government do not simply make it clear that they will not authorise other groups to provide services that the Government are statutorily required to provide to the taxpayer.

My Lords, quite a few of us have used private agencies to speed up getting passports or visas for other countries. Indeed, you can obtain visas through the House of Lords travel office. The question of how far private agencies should be enabled to assist in speeding up the process is difficult. The Government Digital Service and a number of other government agencies are actively engaged in following this. Of course, the internet evolves as quickly as the Government chase those who are abusing their services, but I assure the House that the Government are actively engaged in looking to do everything we can to limit such activities.