Published Monday, 17 March 2014
Martin Lewis looks at the cost of using copycat websites. (© ITV)
1. What are copycat sites and how do I spot them?
These firms appear on search engines such as Google and Bing, dressed as official agencies. They then let you unnecessarily fill in applications and pay the 'cost' via them, slipping in their own hefty charges on top. For example, with EHIC, copycat sites often charge £20 to process an application you can easily do for nowt via the NHS.
So you need to be very careful when searching online. One rule of thumb is to not click the 'ad' section on search engines if you're looking for official sites. On Google, for example, paid ads appear at the top of results, usually with small, yellow ad logos. Scroll down and the natural search results - which is what you want - appear below the thin grey line. Usually the official sites appear here, as they don't pay to appear at the top.
2. How do they get away with it?
Technically these sites aren't unlawful, even though I think they should be. The regulator says it's not illegal for firms to charge for reviewing and forwarding services.
However businesses do have to make it clear that they're not affiliated to the Government, and explain it's possible to apply for free or less through official sites.
That's why if you look closely they'll always say something like "not affiliated with Gov.uk" or "we charge a service fee of £40 for additional benefits".
3. What are the big services to watch out for?
Here are the top ten services you need to watch out for when applying online:
4. Oh no I've been caught out. Can I get my money back?
In short, it's very difficult to get a refund, although I have heard of a few successes. Email straightaway saying you want to cancel your contract and get a refund, explaining you didn't realise you were paying for a service you that you could get for free or cheaper directly.
Also, check the site's terms. A few said they would refund people who cancelled within seven days. If so, email right away. Beware calling their expensive phone lines though.
If you're still hitting a brick wall, you're more likely to get a refund if you kick up a fuss (always be polite, but firm) and email several times. Or call them, provided it's not a premium rate number. You could even try involving your MP. If you feel you were duped, you also have a right to take them to the small claims court, but there is a fee for that (which is refunded if you win) and, sadly, it is an arduous process for a relatively small amount of cash.
© UTV News