Companies that trick people into paying extra for some of life’s necessities – the processing of a tax return, a passport renewed, or the granting of a travel visa – are the internet’s version of Japanese knotweed (fallopia japonica).
However hard good people – such as the crime-busters at Trading Standards – try to get rid of them, they pop up again and again, in the process wreaking havoc and causing untold financial misery.
Over the past five years, our Personal Finance team has been at the forefront of exposing some of these so-called ‘copycat’ websites. Along the way, we have had some impressive results.
Copycat websites are the internet’s version of Japanese knotweed, says Jeff Prestridge
Most notably last August when Richard Howard, the man behind misleading passport renewal website British Passport Services, was handed a one- year suspended prison sentence and fined £20,000 for breaches of consumer protection law.
His online service added nothing over and above dealing direct with HM Passport Office – other than a raft of extra charges and a likely fine and court proceedings if his fees were challenged by those he had duped.
It is believed he managed to extract £1.6 million from users of his copycat website service before the eCrime unit at Trading Standards managed to get him convicted.
Sadly, the kind of sums Howard gained from copycatting means chancers will always try to copy his ‘success’ even if it is in a different area.
Last week, I was contacted by Martin Jordan, from Nottingham, who had been caught out by using an unofficial website.
If you have been caught out by a copycat website, tell me and I will name and shame
Paying for two crossings of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge on the M25, he used paydartfordcharge.co.uk instead of the official gov.uk/pay-dartford-crossing-charge. As a result, he paid £15 instead of £5.
‘Could you please make your readers aware of this rip-off website,’ he told me over the phone last week.
‘It is only once you have paid that you realise it is not the official Dartford Crossing payment site.’ Martin, I am happy to oblige although for the life of me I have yet to establish who is actually behind paydartfordcharge.co.uk.
Last week, I spent an hour trawling through its website trying to find a smidgin of information about its owners.
I also visited Companies House – where details of all companies are listed – but paydartfordcharge rang no bells.
So, if anyone knows anything about its ownership, please drop me an email and I will gladly investigate.
Three final points on copycat websites.
First, search engines such as Google must stop allowing such sites to pay to appear at the top of relevant searches.
Paydartfordcharge only snared Martin because when you type the words ‘dartford crossing’ into Google, its site heads the list. Surely, Google has a responsibility to protect consumers from charlatans.
Secondly, going back to British Passport Services, I simply do not understand how this website still exists (I stumbled upon it again last week). Surely, it should have been closed down as soon as Howard was convicted.
Thirdly, if you have recently been caught out by a copycat website do let me know so that I can name and shame them. Fallopia japonica no more.
Beefeaters have been protesting about pensions
I love watching the Beefeaters at the Tower of London go about their work – eavesdropping, if I can, on the stories they are telling tourists about the Tower’s gruesome past.
But their current beef over changes to their pension arrangements is bang out of order.
They are all cut up over a proposal to move them from pensions based on final salary (deluxe) to those dependent upon the dice that is the stock market (defined contribution).
It is time for the Beefeaters and those union officials who represent them to stop living in the past. For most of us, the pensions world has long moved on. For better or for worse, defined contribution is now the norm. Get real.
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