OFT cracks down on companies that sell free government services

In times when the consumer has less disposable income the last thing they need is to be paying for services that they should be entitled to for free. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT), is beginning a crack down on companies that are selling the same services that the government and other bodies provide for free.

A common theme among these companies is to start a website that looks governmental but is not and charges the visitor for a service they can get for free from the real website. Often these website will use a ‘.org’ address to make themselves look official. The activity is widely spread despite the OFT having the power to close such websites.

An example of this activity is the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), searching on Google will give several results of websites that will charge you for the card. The card can actually be obtained free from the NHS. One website states that they charge £15, as a fee for processing the application, the website does state however, that the card can be obtained from the NHS at no cost.

These business practices are called misleading and unfair and actions can be taken against them in both the criminal and civil courts. Cavendish Elithorn of the OFT’s consumer group as said, “these websites must make clear that the same service can be gained from the government for no cost. They must not trick people into thinking there is always a charge. The investigation will examine whether these sites are misleading consumers.”

This is not a new problem for the OFT. Last year it received several complaints from bodies such as the DVLA, saying that the websites charging people over the odds looked very similar to the websites run by the official bodies.

People who have been taken in by these websites have complained, “it’s outrageous, they are committing fraud and taking advantage of people.” So far three website have been deemed by the OFT to have violated trading regulations, since then they have agreed to make it more clear on their websites that the service can be got for free elsewhere.

Consumer Focus Investigations has said, “The OFT must take further action to ensure that consumers cannot be taken advantage off in this way. We urge consumers to be extra vigilant when buying services online.” The Citizens Advice bureau has also criticised the practice.