Government services: deceptive online selling

Office of Fair Trading (OFT) closed consumer enforcement case.

Case reference number: CRE/0648

Complainant: OFT own-initiative investigations

Summary of work

The OFT has decided, on administrative priority grounds, to close its investigation into websites which charge consumers for processing applications for a range of government services, such as European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs), which are available free or at a low cost if obtained directly from the government.

The investigation examined whether there had been an infringement of consumer protection legislation, in particular the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Among the matters investigated, the OFT looked at whether these websites were deceptively presenting themselves as official government websites.

The OFT found that in most instances the sites investigated carried statements explaining the nature of the service provided and disclaiming any official status or affiliation with the government.

The OFT also worked with central government to help official government websites appear more prominently when searched for online.

The OFT prioritises its work in accordance with its published prioritisation principles. Broadly speaking, it focuses its efforts and resources on deterring and influencing behaviour that poses the greatest threat to consumer welfare

Based on the results of its investigation and the improvement in online searches, the OFT has concluded that potential for significant consumer detriment is low and there is insufficient evidence of breaches of consumer protection legislation to warrant prioritising formal enforcement action in this instance. It may reconsider its decision in the future if it receives further evidence of suspected infringements, or its prioritisation assessment changes.

The OFT is, however, concerned that people visiting a website that charges for processing applications for a government service may not always be aware that they can save money by going direct to the government, so has issued a consumer alert to help raise awareness and warn people to be cautious when entering their card payment details online.

The OFT is unable to provide advice or resolve individual complaints for consumers. The Citizens Advice consumer service provides free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues. Visit www.adviceguide.org.uk or call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 08454 04 05 06.

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