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‘Copycat’ websites offer processing services that are provided cheaper or free of charge through official government sites. Often, they charge a substantial premium for providing those services. For example, searching on the internet to apply for a passport, change the address of a driver’s licence, or book a driving theory test, brings up websites for businesses which offer to check, review and forward applications for a fee. Advertisements for these businesses may feature prominently in search results.

It is not unlawful to provide reviewing and forwarding services, but businesses should make it clear on their websites that they are not affiliated to the Government and that consumers will be paying for a service which they could obtain from Government for free or at a lower cost. Unfair and misleading practices are prohibited by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs), enforced through the civil and criminal courts.

During 2013-14, copycat websites were a serious issue, with consumers complaining that some websites were imitating official government services to “trick” them into paying unnecessarily for services. In many cases, consumers, having searched on the internet, believed they were on an official site until they were charged a processing fee. Although the issue of copycat websites has never really gone away, the pandemic has provided the opportunity for a new wave of scams, including fake coronavirus websites.

The draft Online Safety Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech, was published on 12 May 2021. This draft Bill sets out a new regulatory framework for online safety, including user-generated fraud. The Government had not intended to include “financial harms” within the new regulatory framework. However, regulators, such as the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS), called on the Government to extend the scope of the Bill. It was argued that failing to tackle online scams would leave gaping holes in consumer protection, impacting on some of the most vulnerable people in society.

This briefing paper provides an overview of the legal position. It also considers the involvement of Trading Standards, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Government Digital Service (GDS) in monitoring, and in some cases taking action against, copycat websites. It also looks at the occasions when the issue of copycat websites has been raised in Parliament either during debates or as Parliamentary Questions.

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