Why you can't trust Google when renewing your driving licence... or applying for a holiday visa
Internet users are being tricked by websites on Google into paying hefty fees for government services that should be free or cost far less.
Drivers renewing their licences and holidaymakers applying for travel visas are most at risk.
When you search for these services on Google, as many as four of the top entries on the first page of the search results are copycats that imitate official websites.
Official: The official Australian site where an electronic visa is priced at $20
Copycat: The slick-looking trick website which is charging $35 (£20) for a visa
If you click on the links, you are taken to a page that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
Typically, copycat sites use the same colours, layout and words. Usually, you do get the real government service — but only after paying a huge premium to the copycat website, which acts as middleman.
To renew a driving licence, which is free to the over-70s and costs £14 online if you're younger, copycat sites charge up to £60.
For a U.S. visa, which should cost just over £10, copycat sites charge up to £80. Victims often believe they are using official web pages and are unaware that they are overpaying.
Copycat sites typically pay for adverts that appear at the top of Google search result pages. These look like normal results — apart from a small green logo saying 'AD'.
In 2014, Google promised to stop unscrupulous firms doing this. Yet, over the summer, Money Mail received a stream of letters from victims of copycat sites.
When we challenged Google, it said its policy 'makes it very clear that we do not allow the promotion of sites that charge for products or services that are otherwise free'.
A spokeswoman says Google has more than 1,000 staff working to take down inappropriate adverts. But we can reveal that copycat sites are avoiding detection by exploiting a loophole in the web giant's rules.
Google says copycat sites can advertise if they 'clearly state the original service is available for free elsewhere, provide a working link to the official source where they can get the free service, as well as accurately represent the added value they are charging for'.
Copycat sites typically put disclaimers about being an unofficial body in the small print of their pages.
And to justify charging extra fees, they offer services that they claim 'add value' — but which are often superfluous — such as 'support' as you fill in the forms.
David Ellis, 73, from Prescot, Merseyside, was caught out when he renewed his driving licence in July.
When drivers reach the age of 70, they must renew their licence every three years. This is free through the official website gov.uk/renew-driving-licence-at-70.
The website David used — he cannot remember its name — asked him to pay 90p for postage. Later, he saw that £49 had been taken from his account.
We found a site that levies this 90p driving licence postage fee called driving-licence-over70.adm-online.co.uk.
It signs you up to a 'subscription service' that costs £49 every two months for tutorials on filling in forms.
'The most frustrating thing is that I'm always so careful about these things and I've never been scammed before,' says David. 'It didn't ring alarm bells because 90p wasn't going to break the bank.'
Barbara Faulconbridge, 79, was hit when she had to replace her lost driving licence in July.
The retired company director typed 'renew driving licence' into Google. The top result was ukdrivingsupport.co.uk, whose fee was £59.99 for a replacement that should have cost £20.
Barbara, who lives with her husband Jeffrey, 83, in Selston, Nottinghamshire, says: 'It looked official, I filled in all my details as usual on a proper form.'
Weeks later, she received a DVLA form for a new licence with some fields filled in. She became concerned and tried to phone the company. But despite leaving messages, she never had a response. Her bank agreed to cancel the payment and she has since found her lost licence.
Countries outside the EU often require British citizens to apply for a visa to go on holiday. For instance, a U.S. tourist visa should cost $14 (£10.97), a visa for Canada costs $7 (£4.17) and in Australia, it's free.
Money Mail typed 'American visa' into Google recently and usa-travel-application.net was the site that appeared at the top of the results. It charges £79 for the visa and services such as an 'online helpdesk'.
When we did the same thing looking for a Canadian visa yesterday, canadaentry.eu was the first result. It claimed to be a Canadian travel authorisation service and charges $89 (£53).
The official government site is cic.gc.ca/english/visit. We also found Australian sites charging $35 (£20) for a visa. The official site is australia.gov.au.
Gary Davies, 62, and his wife lost £58 after applying online for an ESTA — an electronic tourist visa for the U.S. Ahead of their holiday in May, Gary searched for an American visa and his Google results showed esta-registration.co.uk.
This mimics the official American government site esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta. He was charged £58 — more than five times the official cost.
Money Mail searched Google for 'ESTA' yesterday and esta-registration.co.uk showed up as the second result. This was in the normal search results, rather than the paid-for adverts that usually appear at the top.
Trading Standards says it is working with search engines to stop misleading paid for results. Mike Andrews, lead coordinator for the National Trading Standards eCrime Team, says: 'If you are searching for official government services, go to gov.uk and search there instead.'
To get a holiday visa, go to gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice, click on a country's 'entry requirements' and you will be linked to an official visa application page. None of the copycat firms responded to requests for comment.