Ad watchdog launches ‘high priority’ crackdown on copycat Government websites

The advertising watchdog has launched a “high priority” crackdown on “copycat” websites that can mislead consumers into thinking they are official Government sites and into paying hundreds of pounds for services that should be free.

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The Advertising Standards Authority is cracking down on unofficial websites offering Government services.

The Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA’s) sector-wide enforcement will see the regulator contact all website owners it has received complaints about to date or has proactively identified as potentially misleading. The ASA and Citizens Advice have already received some 5,700 complaints to date about unofficial websites offering access to Government services, some of which charge a premium.

The ASA will look to ensure marketing content including images and text which could be dressed up to look like official Government sites are compliant with the advertising code.

The ASA told Marketing Week it expects to adjudicate on a “precedent setting” case shortly. After that ruling, the watchdog will update its online guidance to advertisers, which do also include legitimate businesses offering access to Government services, such as accountants.

The crackdown comes in the same week five people were arrested over links to alleged scams for fees charged for tax returns, driving licenses and passport applications. The five arrested under the Fraud Act are now on police bail, officials at the National Trading Standards eCrime Unit have said.

In addition to contacting websites across the sector, the ASA also plans to communicate the findings of recent research it has conducted into copycat websites to search engines to ensure they do not link to illegitimate services.

The research, conducted by Ipsos MORI, found features on copycat sites such as simplified crown logos similar to that of Gov.uk, using the word “official” or “gov” in site descriptions and URLs and images directly relevant to the application process such as screenshots of application forms were commonly used to mislead consumers.

More than 74 per cent of online consumers have used the internet to access at least one government service, the research found – yet half (50 per cent) failed to identify the official birth, death and marriages website from the copycat version in the study, for example.

The ASA is also planning to lend its PR and social media support to Gov.uk’s digital #StartAtGOVUK awareness marketing campaign, which aims to prevent consumer confusion over copycat websites by informing consumers that official Government services can by found by searching on the Gov.uk website.

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