The National Trading Standards eCrime Team has arrested five people in a crackdown on bogus government websites.
The operation has shut down at least 25 fraudulent websites set up to defraud UK citizens by tricking them into paying for services that cost less or are free of charge through official government sites.
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The fraudsters are targeting government services relating to tax returns, passports, driving licences and tests, car tax discs and European health insurance cards.
The crackdown comes after more than 5,000 complaints were made to the Citizens Advice Bureau in 2013 and 700 were made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
“Our eCrime team is clamping down on the cyber fraudsters behind these websites and we are making it as difficult as possible for these online hoaxers to operate,” said Toby Harris, chair of the National Trading Standards Board (NTSB).
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“We have been working with search engines such as Google and Bing to remove adverts from online search results and we continue to gather intelligence across the country to help tackle this issue,” he said.
Copycat web features
The NTSB is urging UK citizens to avoid unofficial websites because of the risk of fraud and identity theft by using only government services found on the Gov.uk website.
The bogus websites often use addresses that include elements such as "govuk", "directgov" or relevant organisation names to make them appear as official providers of certain services.
Similar design features are incorporated to replicate the look and feel of official service websites.
The NTSB has appealed to anyone discovering a copycat government website to report it to the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 040506.
How to avoid fraud
Martin Lewis, creator of MoneySavingExpert, said users of government services online need to be vigilant not to be tricked by copycat sites.
“I have lost count of the number of people who contact me upset and want to know how to get their cash back, but generally that is very difficult.
“To avoid being duped, go to Gov.uk to search for the required service instead of using search engines,” he said.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude said the UK is a world leader in digital reform, and the government will do everything necessary to clamp down on websites that mislead users of government services.
“We’ve streamlined our services onto the award winning Gov.uk to ensure there is one government website that people can trust and to make things easier for users,” he said.
In June 2104, the government announced £200m of savings made using technology in the past year.
The bulk of the savings were ascribed to improvements in government’s digital services through moving websites to GOV.UK and introducing online transaction services.
The Government Digital Service, is mid-way through a transformation programme to move 25 of the most-used government services online.
NTSB educational video on copycat websites