Jo McCarron is warning holiday makers to take heed when applying for their passports online.
In the lead up to the spring, many people will be in the process of booking holidays abroad and applying for passports. But Jo says there is a growing problem with rogue sites which charge extortionate amounts of money to provide basic information about passport applications, which is otherwise free from the local post office.
The official Gov.UK site has also issued warnings on the main page about copycat websites, but often by the time people have seen that, it's too late. The websites are designed to look as official as possible and appear on a search above the official site. A site called passport.uk.com even has "Official UK Passport Application" written in the title.
Jo Mc Carron said:
“It is dreadful that people can be so easily cheated, particularly at a time when wages are stagnated and every penny of the family budget us under scrutiny.
“People who have fallen victim to this scam tell me that they believed they were on the official site, only to find after they'd applied, they had been charged a whopping £99 to just be provided with the application form which is otherwise free. When initially paying the money, they thought they were paying for the passport itself. It just adds to the sense that many people feel like they are constantly being ripped off left, right and centre.”
The problem does not only stop at passports. On almost every Government or local authority service where a fee or licence is applicable, private organisations pay for their websites to come top on searches. People applying for birth and death certificates, congestion charge payments, driving licences, national insurance numbers and even rod fishing licences are all at threat from these rogue sites.
Google now bans commercial users to buy such searches using its AdWords system, but critics say the giant, which made a profit of £2.6bn in the UK in 2011 but paid just £6m in tax, could do more to help consumers.
“I have today written to the Chief Executive of South Gloucestershire Council asking that warnings are issued at the top of the relevant parts of their website to try to help consumers avoid falling for these misleading and costly services. I'd also be keen to hear from anyone in Kingswood who has fallen victim to such scams to hear about their experiences. I will be seeking to raise awareness of the issue to ensure as few people as possible are caught out by this."