ASA clamps down on copycat congestion charge site

Consumers say the website positioned itself as the official TfL congestion charge website and tricked them into paying more than they needed to

A website whose design could dupe unwary motorists into paying extra for the London congestion charge has been ordered to make significant changes by the advertising watchdog.

Following an investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority, the website has been ordered to make it clearer to users that it is not affiliated to the real Transport for London website.

The ASA investigated after complainants said they had used the site believing it was the official TfL site after it was returned high up in Google searches. It charges £16 to pay the £10 charge and complainants said the site, which used the TfL typeface, colour scheme and a tab labelled "Visit Transport for London", had given the impression that it was part of TfL. is one of a number of websites that mimic government pages and charge consumers hefty, unnecessary fees for everything from renewing a passport or driving licence to receiving the free European health card.

It charges £16 to pay the congestion charge in advance, whereas drivers could pay it on the official site for just £10. If you pay for previous days it charges £20 instead of TfL's official charge of £12. It justifies the extra cost by saying it charges a "service fee for checking and processing your application".

In its ruling the ASA said: "The ads must not appear again in their current form. We told to ensure that their ads made clear that they were not affiliated with TfL, and to specify the amount of their fees at or before the point at which consumers were invited to enter their personal details."

In recent years there has been a huge growth in the number of copycat websites designed to trap unwary consumers into paying fees. In most cases users Google the service they need and then click on one of the Google ad sites, which takes them to the copycat site. Users think they are dealing with the real government site.

At the beginning of 2013, Guardian Money warned about this issue and since then has been inundated by consumers who have complained they were duped. Following a Money campaign, Google made several sites change their designs, but the problem persists.

Guardian Money has received hundreds of letters from people who paid £72 to have their passport checked when they thought they were paying for a standard renewal.

It is not against the law for a company to offer a service similar to that of an official government body and to charge for it, but those duped have repeatedly asked why the government has failed to act.

The ASA has commissioned research into the problem, after which it said it would consider taking further action.

Google has insisted that companies have to make it clear they are not the official site.


Miles Brignall

The GuardianTramp

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