The Self Assessment deadline on 31st January is always a magnet for scammers, usually in the form of phishing emails – however this year saw an explosion in “copycat” filing websites, with many people duped into paying extortionate amounts to file their personal tax return, a service which is totally free through HMRC’s Online Services.

These scams are not just limited to Self Assessment filings. Copycat services exist for Passport renewals, European health insurance cards, congestion charges and many other Government services which are available for free through official sources. After campaigns from The Guardian and Which?, the Department for Business has announced an extra £120,000 for the National Trading Standards Board specifically to tackle the sudden rise of fraudulent copycat services. The Cabinet Office also announced a collaboration with Google, the Advertising Standards Agency and Which? to help raise public awareness of such sites.

Which? highlighted one particular Self Assessment filing website which charged up to £1,000 for filing, despite appearing to offer no extra services than HMRC’s free filing gateway. Jenny Willott, consumer affairs minister, said:

“Misleading websites which dupe people into believing they are using the official government channel need to be stopped in their tracks. The unfortunate reality is that a minority are exploiting those who are perhaps less web-savvy and we need to clamp down on them. These rogues that con people out of their hard-earned cash need to know that the full glare of trading standards is now on them.”

Executive Director of Which? Richard Lloyd added:

“For too long copycat websites have got away with misleading consumers into paying potentially hundreds of pounds for services that should be free. There must be an immediate crackdown on copycat websites, along with a review of legislation and any offending sites immediately removed from the internet.”

Photo by Mark Longair