I am getting a lot of complaints from Saga readers about websites that trick them into paying extra for Government services that should be free have a fixed cost. Passports, European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs), driving tests, ESTAs for travel to the USA, and visas for travelling to countries where UK citizens need them are all subject to these scams.
It usually starts with a search engine like Google, Bing or Yahoo. You put in the term you want – say ‘UK passport renewal’ and at the top of the list are not the official Government website but clone sites that look very official but which are not. Some even have a crown logo and use the word ‘official’ in their material. They charge you up to £99 on top of the usual passport fees for doing nothing more than letting you fill in a form online and posting it to the passport office. Some offer you online or telephone help which you can get free on 0300 222 0000.
The Government warned about these sites in June this year. A spokesperson said “It’s totally unacceptable that unscrupulous companies are continuing to trick people into paying for information which is available free of charge by Her Majesty’s Passport Office.” Renewing a standard UK adult passport costs £72.50 from HM Passport Office unless you were born 2 September 1929 or earlier when it is free. See https://www.gov.uk/passport-fees Get the form from a Post Office.
Another racket is charging people for EHICs – the card you need to get free health care in EU countries. EHICs are free but do a search online and you will find websites that charge £24 or more to apply for you. Get a free one at https://www.ehic.org.uk/Internet/startApplication.do
The clone sites are also moving into driving tests. The actual costs are set out here
but many sites will charge you double or more if you go through them. Sometimes you will not even get a guaranteed test date.
The safest way to protect yourself is to start any search for Government services at the website www.gov.uk and use its search box for what you want. It will even take you to the correct site for some foreign services such as the ESTA visa waiver document for travel to the USA which should cost you just $14. For other foreign visas start with the country’s embassy or consulate in the UK.
If you use Google or Bing or Yahoo or other search engines the top sites they turn up will usually be clones that pay to get high up the list. Don’t be fooled by them even if they use the word ‘official’ or have a crown symbol. Scroll down to one that ends .gov.uk
* Read Paul Lewis' money articles every month in Saga Magazine.