Government takes action on misleading websites
8 Oct 2014
Many constituents have unwittingly paid money for Government services on line because they believe the websites are official. Below is a letter setting out what the Government is doing about it:

You will have seen in the media about the increasing problems of misleading websites -
third party websites that pass themselves off as legitimate government services,
exaggerate the nature of the services they provide, or deliberately underplay the
services that people can get for free or at a lower cost from official sources. You may
have had correspondence on this issue from your constituents.
We take this problem very seriously as we understand how these types of sites
undermine public confidence in using the internet in general and government digital
services in particular. Therefore, we wanted to tell you what is being done to tackle
these rogue traders to help you in dealing with any queries you receive. This work is coordinated
through the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the Cabinet Office with
support from all relevant departments and agencies.
Nature of the problem
Mis-selling of government services takes three main forms:
1. Brand abuse - the (mis)use of government logos to imply affiliation with or
endorsement by government and its agencies
2. Phishing - attempting to acquire information such as usernames, passwords,
credit card details and other useful personal information by masquerading as a
trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.
3. Third party websites levying charges for access to government services, claiming
to provide ‘additional services’ that actually offer little or no value (sometimes
described as scamming)
Brand abuse and phishing are the easiest to categorise and to deal with, through the issue of ‘cease and desist’ letters, followed by more punitive legal action where necessary. Action in this area has already seen a significant drop in the number of complaints.
However, third-party websites levying additional charges for access to government services continue to occur. Some government services are more impacted by this problem than others. In particular, services that tend to be ‘one-off’ transactions or that citizens and businesses use infrequently tend to be the ones that these third-party websites target. Such services include passport applications, booking driving tests (theory and practical) and driving licence applications.
Taking down adverts for misleading websites
Most people come across these third-party sites through the ‘sponsored adverts’ section on search engines such as Google or Bing. Even though content on the government’s GOV.UK site is optimised to ensure that, as far as possible, GOV.UK ranks highly in search engine results for government services, the ‘sponsored adverts’ section sits above these ‘organic’ search results. As a result, people unfamiliar with the layout of the search engine page - or those just in a rush - often click into the misleading website by mistake.
The adverts - or the sites they link to - often break the search engine providers’ Terms and Conditions, but they are not actively removed unless complaints are received. We met with Google in February where we agreed a mechanism for flagging misleading websites advertising on their search engine in breach of their Terms and Conditions. Similar arrangements are in place with other search engine providers. These arrangements are operating effectively and departments are working with providers where such sites are identified to have the adverts removed. The providers also have contact forms (eg. Google and Bing) which are shared with complainants contacting government to advise of being scammed to ensure clear ownership of the issue by providers. We will continue to identify these sites to search engine providers as early as possible.
The government is working with the National Trading Standards Board (NTSB) to ensure enforcement action is taken where appropriate. Jenny Willott, (the then) Minister for Consumer Affairs, confirmed in March 2014 that the NTSB would receive an additional £120,000 in the 2013/14 to identify and investigate the companies behind misleading websites offering access to government services.
On 27 June 2014, five people were arrested under the Fraud Act by the police, based on intelligence from the NTSB. It is anticipated these will come to court during the next year. Where enforcement is an appropriate response to misleading activity, the
government will continue to push for this to be robust to deal with unscrupulous providers.
Raising Awareness
The government has a responsibility to make sure the public is aware of the issue of misleading websites and how these can be identified. GDS is working with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), NTSB, Which? and others to address this.
NTSB released a video via social media in July 2014 to support its activity and kick off an “Owl and the Copycat” campaign. GDS is also working with Which? who, in early July, published a consumer piece “How to spot a copycat website”, which gives excellent advice for users.
In addition, on 8 July, the government launched its social media Thunderclap campaign (#StartatGOVUK) to encourage users to start their journey at GOV.UK if they wish to access government information and services. This campaign worked on the principle that a message is heard when everyone says it together at the same time. The message was shared via social media channels (twitter / facebook). Momentum is also being maintained through Twitter activity in themed weeks based on some of the main services that are being targeted by misleading websites.
What impact has been felt from activity to date
To date, the government has primarily focused its efforts on the services where there was the greatest level of activity from misleading websites. This has led to a significant reduction in the public clicking through to the misleading sites, and a corresponding increase in people coming directly through to the official government services. In the period between November 2013 - June 2014 click through rates to the official sites have improved as follows:
(*the slight drop in headline figure is likely to be due to the data source for collecting information now being disaggregated across several options).
GDS continues tracking click-through rates and will report progress via its blog every quarter.
What should your constituents do if they experience problems
If people come across adverts for misleading websites on search result pages, they should report them. Advice on how to do this can be found at
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015