Sharon Bryant was furious when she found she’d paid almost £50 to renew a European Health Insurance Card which she could have obtained for free.
The cards cover holidaymakers against costs arising from accident and emergency medical treatment throughout Europe, and are renewable online at no charge via a Department of Health website ehic.org.uk.
In January Sharon decided to treat herself to a two-week summer break with workplace colleagues on the Costa del Sol in Spain. But she discovered her original health card had expired so she Googled EHIC and landed up with a website using a copycat address, ehicuk.org.
It wasn’t until she received the card that she realised she’d been fooled into using an unofficial online processing service.
The 24-year-old Portsmouth shop assistant said: ‘As it was so long since I had a card or used it, it didn’t occur to me that I was being short-changed when I had to pay upfront to renew it.’
‘When I received the card my friends told me I’d been taken for a ride as I didn’t need to pay for it at all.’
The EHIC was previously known as E111 and is accepted throughout all 28 countries in the European Union.
Almost four years ago the Office of Fair Trading used unfair trading law to crack down on clone government websites and many were closed down.
But new sites with misleading URL addresses designed to dupe people to believe they were using an official government channel quickly sprang up to fill the void.
Streetwise has received a number of complaints from readers about cyber con artists.
We are unable to call what happened to Sharon a scam because technically firms are allowed to charge for reviewing and forwarding services. As such they’re not illegal.
But they do have to make it clear they’re not affiliated to the government, and explain it’s possible to apply for free or less through official sites.
Trading Standards is investigating and aims to take action against hoax sites that pass themselves off as official government services.
A dedicated national specialist e-crime team of officers is spearheading a campaign to bring rogue site operators to book for not playing by the rules.
A number of people have already appeared in court and convicted for criminal unfair trading offences.
Lord Toby Harris, chair of the national trading standards board said: ‘Our e-crime team is clamping down on the cyber fraudsters behind these websites and we are making it as difficult as possible for online hoaxers to operate.
‘We have been working with search engines such as Google and Bing to remove adverts from online search results and we continue to gather intelligence across the country to help tackle this issue.’
We visited the unofficial EHIC website used by Sharon and discovered it originated in the USA. There was no response to our enquiry about the misleading www.ehicuk.org address.
However, their website does make it plain they’re not the official EHIC site and even includes a link to NHS Choices to apply for free card applications and renewals.
When we put this to Sharon, she admitted it was the website address that came up in Google that had fooled her and she hadn’t been sufficiently vigilant.
She said: ‘Now I know what to look out for I’ll be more careful next time.
‘Most of us lead busy lives and can easily get caught off-guard if we haven’t used a service for some time, but I believe Google should take more responsibility for deleting copycat sites that replicate the real thing.’
A spokesman from the Department of Health told Streetwise that it was working with Google to identify ads which mislead consumers.
He added: ‘Some sites exaggerate the nature of the services they provide in the relation to the EHIC.
‘This is completely unacceptable, and we liaise with the relevant enforcement agencies to ensure action is taken where appropriate.
‘We strongly recommend anyone who wants to locate a government department or agency to go to the ‘gov.uk’ website and use the search function from there.’