Q. I am very unhappy about the website drivinglicence.uk.com. My son paid £50 to apply for his first provisional driving licence. He searched on Google and went to the first hit, which he assumed was the government’s website. He knew there would be a £50 fee for a driving licence so was not surprised to pay this. He had no idea that he was paying an intermediary service, which was not official and just posted the application forms to him. He then received paperwork from drivinglicence.uk.com in the post. This consisted of a DVLA application form to be completed and returned to DVLA in the enclosed addressed, but unstamped, envelope. Matthew was advised to send a photo and the £50 fee with the completed form to DVLA. To make things worse, any queries are answered by a premium rate phone number, at a cost of £1.53 per minute. My son’s only income is £10 a week, which he earns from a Sunday morning paper round. He is allowed extra time in examinations because of his dyslexia. I think this is really unfair. HS, Bristol.
A. It is difficult to believe that consumers would willingly and knowingly use a website such as drivinglicence.uk.com if they realised they were merely paying for paperwork that they could obtain free of charge from an official source. This type of website profits from consumer confusion. The problem is made much worse when search engines – and this seems to be specific to Google – on occasion show unofficial websites higher than official websites. However, these websites have not been found to have broken the law and so are allowed to continue to trade. We approached drivinglicence.uk.com, whose Jamie Wyatt responded: “We feel that complaint [sic] made in respect of [the reader’s son’s] application with our service has been addressed fairly and have no further comment to make.”
We then contacted Google. Its spokeswoman said: “We have a set of policies which govern what ads we do and do not allow on Google. Our ‘sale of free items and official services’ policy makes it very clear that we do not allow the promotion of sites that charge for products or services that are otherwise available for free, unless they clearly mention that the original service is available for free elsewhere, provide a working link to the official source where they can get the free service and accurately represent the added value they are charging for. If we discover sites that are breaking this policy we will take appropriate action.” Reference to Google’s policies shows that advertisers must clearly state they are not government websites and the advertiser is not permitted to make a charge if they are providing services of “little or no additional value to the user”.
Our final effort at resolving your son’s problem was to contact his bank, RBS. It, too, said it was unable to assist. Its spokeswoman explained: “I’m afraid we are not in a position to refund the customer as there has been no error. To refund the customer in this case would set an unrealistic precedent that we would do so in all instances of this type, as a gesture of goodwill.”
Q. I read through a passport application form on the internet and I believed I was on the official Passport Office website. When I went to make the application I completed the form and submitted it. Only afterwards did I find that I was on the website of passport-uk.co.uk and found I had been charged £69, when the service was free through the Passport office. PD, by email.
A. We took this up with your bank, Lloyds, to request a refund. Its spokeswoman said: “We are not in a position to do a charge back as the completed passport application has been received. The cardholder paid for a check and send service and within the terms and conditions, it advises no cancellation can be made due to the nature of the service.” We phoned passport-uk.co.uk, but the call went to an automated system, where the message stressed that this is a private service and unconnected to the Passport Office.
Q. In the last few days of the tax year I went online to file my tax return. I found a site via Google and the top listing was for the Tax Return Gateway, which I believed was an official HM Revenue & Customs website. But it is not and I ended up paying £400 just to file my tax return. I missed all the statements saying that this was not the HMRC website. I was a little confused as to why I had to pay £400 to submit my return, but I assumed I would recover this from HMRC in my next tax settlement. HMRC has now explained the error of my ways. IA, by email.
A. You tell us that while the Tax Return Gateway came up first when you did a Google search, when you conducted a similar search with other search engines Yahoo and Bing, the genuine HMRC site came out top. When we conducted our own search with Google, the official website also came out top – but we believe that the algorithms used by Google take into account users’ past search histories, not only the current search terms. You tell us that you took the matter to Citizens Advice, which told you that you have no redress as the website made clear that it is not the official HMRC website.
In all three of these cases, readers contacted us primarily as a warning to other readers to be wary when making payments to websites that they believe are government sites. In all three cases, warnings were there, but these were not noticed. While government bodies do charge for some services, they do not charge to send out forms. It is therefore essential to know what is being paid for, to read the conditions attached to any payment and to be certain that what may appear to be a government website is genuinely that.