Consumer: Rising complaints over ‘broker’ sites

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Rogue brokerage websites which trick people into paying for free services could soon be no more.

A campaign to crack down on rogue brokerage firms who trick people into paying for services they don’t need to pay for is gathering pace in the region after a flurry of complaints to a consumer watchdog

Consumerwatch reported recently that Leeds MP Alec Shelbrooke was calling for enforcement action over the ‘legal scammers’ who con people into paying brokerage fees for free Government-run services.

The Elmet and Rothwell Conservative MP raised the matter in Parliament after he himself was stung.

Now it has emerged that in recent months, West Yorkshire Trading Standards Service has seen an increase in the level of complaints about these services.

The complaints relate to internet sites that offer a service to renew or apply for items such as passports, blue badge permits, driving licences, HGV licences or to make a benefit claim or any other government related services. Although these websites appear to be endorsed by, or are in some way affiliated with the Government, they are in fact not.

The websites charge consumers for the process of applying or renewing for a product on their behalf. So, not only will a consumer pay the normal cost for the product, but will also be charged for application process, whilst unbeknown to them, they could apply themselves at no extra cost.

Trading Standards is advising consumers to be careful when selecting internet sites, particularly those which come near the top of search engine pages, and offers the following advice and information:

There are two different categories of websites:

Unofficial ‘copycat’ websites: These explain within their terms and conditions that they are not affiliated with any government agency. Although they may look like the official website, if the site clearly states it is not endorsed or affiliated with a government agency and you decide to accept their fee, then the company is not committing any criminal offence.

Misleading websites: These purport to be affiliated and associated with a government agency and give the impression that you need to apply for the product, either it be a passport, driving licence, through them at an extra cost, when in fact they have no such association and the consumer could have quite easily applied themselves through an official website at no extra cost.

David Lodge, Head of West Yorkshire Trading Standards, said: “We have seen a rise in the number of residents who have fallen foul of websites which at first glance appear to be the appropriate government pages.

“However, consumers have later realised that the money they’ve sent off isn’t actually to pay for the goods in question, but is to cover the administration process only.”

He urged consumers to always remain vigilant whilst shopping on the internet.

“Check that the website you’re on has a ‘.gov.uk’ ending if you’re applying for a driving licence, passport or similar, and make sure you know who you are doing business with before sending off your money.

“If you believe you’ve been scammed by a fake website, please contact Citizens’ Advice,” he said.

Speaking to Consumerwatch, Mr Shelbrooke said that he had been caught out himself while renewing a European Union card.

“I heard a radio advert which said you can apply to renew online,” he said.

“I put it into Google and was taken to a site that charged £14.

“I then found out there was no charge attached to it at all.

“It’s literally just people who are acting a as a broker, but you don’t know.

“They are not doing anything illegal but it is a scam, and people need to be aware.

“The only difference between these firms and payday lenders is that with the payday lenders, you know what you are getting. With this, you don’t have to do it at all.”

Any consumer who has concerns regarding a misleading website, or who believes they may have already fallen victim to a scam website, should report the details to Trading Standards.

Call the Citizens’ Advice Consumer Helpline on 0845 404 0506.

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