A TEAM of cyber detectives in North Yorkshire has helped shut down more than 25 scam websites.
The investigation by the National Trading Standards eCrime Team (NTSeCT), which is hosted by North Yorkshire County Council, has seen five people arrested at addresses around the country, in connection with the 'copycat' websites.
More than 5,000 complaints were made to Citizens Advice last year and 700 were made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over the sites. They imitate official government sites and included passport renewal, driving test booking, car tax discs, and HMRC notices, and were convincing enough to make people pay for services which would ordinarily be cheaper or completely free through official channels.
Mike Andrews, the national eCrime co-ordinator with the team, said: "We are determined to crack down on companies and websites that set out to confuse and mislead consumers. I am pleased that the National Trading Standards eCrime Team has been at the forefront of tackling the problem of copycat websites and hope this sends out a clear message that this sort of activity will not be tolerated."
The team are also working with search engines including Google and Bing to remove advertisements for the sites, which often use addresses including ‘govuk’ or ‘directgov’ to make themselves appear official.
The arrests have also been welcomed by the chair of the National Trading Standards Board, Lord Toby Harris, who launched the team in October.
He said: "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.
“We urge you to avoid unofficial websites which could leave you out-of-pocket or at risk of identity theft. Only use the GOV.UK website to find government services. If you come across copycat websites, report them to Citizens Advice.”
The team has also released a video to help fight copycat websites, voiced by Martin Lewis, creator of MoneySavingExpert.
Mr Lewis said: “I’ve lost count of the number of people who contact me upset and want to know how to get their cash back. Generally that’s very difficult, which is why you need to be tooled up in advance with the knowledge National Trading Standards is putting out today. If you want a Government service, go through www.gov.uk – don’t use search engines.”
To report a misleading or copycat website, contact the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06.