We've today published the findings of research, conducted on our behalf by Ipsos MORI, into the public’s experience of ‘copycat websites’. This forms part of our on-going commitment to protecting consumers from misleading advertising and builds on the work we've carried out to date, alongside government, trading standards and search engines, to address concerns about copycat sites.
Copycat sites are websites which offer access to online government services but are not the official channel, and often charge a premium for their service. We commissioned the research to gain a better understanding of how consumers apply for official services online, their expectations of official services and the extent and ways in which they’re misled by non-official services, in order to identify the best way to tackle the issue of copycat sites, and our role within that.
The research identified certain aspects of copycat sites that some people found hard to distinguish from official sites, such as the use of crown logos and the prominence of disclaimers. It also revealed the importance of clarity during the searching process, specifically the need for clarity surrounding what is and what is not a sponsored ad, as well as the need for greater public awareness of government sites.
It’s our priority to address the findings of the research so that the public aren't misled and legitimate businesses have a clear understanding of what they can and can’t do in their advertising. That’s why we are committed to tackling the issue through the following actions:
Enforcement – Based on the findings of the research, and the outcome of a precedent setting investigation we've launched, we’ll be undertaking sector wide-enforcement and updating our guidance to advertisers.
Working with search engines – Google and Bing have worked with Government to remove misleading adverts from search results, so that the majority of consumers go direct to the official gov.uk site. We’ll communicate the findings of our research with search engines so they’re aware of consumer expectations and experiences when searching for official services online, to further reduce the likelihood of consumers coming across misleading search results in the first place.
Supporting the Government public awareness campaign – We’ll continue to work with Government Digital Services, and support their public awareness campaign ‘StartAtGovUK’ which seeks to ensure that anyone looking for official services starts at GOV.UK to avoid misleading websites.
In summary, our qualitative research reveals that:
- Many of the ways participants searched online protected them from coming across copycat sites.
- Many participants were confused by the range of different government sites and government brands. Many were open to the idea that there could be several ways to access official services online.
- Participants were not surprised that counterfeit sites existed, but they were less familiar with the idea of legitimate businesses charging a premium for official services online.
The following features on copycat sites seem to mislead consumers:
- Overall design and colour scheme that closely mimicked the look and feel of official sites
- Using images directly relevant to the application process, such as screenshots of application forms
- Using simplified crown logos similar to the GOV.UK and other similar logos
- Using language in site names, URLs, search result descriptors or ads that suggest the site is official (e.g. the word “official” in descriptions or “gov”’ in URLs).
- Placing disclaimers in clear sight, but with other website features drawing attention away from them
- The majority (74%) of online consumers have used the internet to access at least one of the government services.
- The official and example copycat passport application sites that were tested were most likely to be correctly identified (82% and 83% respectively).
- Online consumers were less confident about the official and example copycat sites tested for replacing birth, death and marriage certificates (67% correctly identified the official site, 50% correctly identified the copycat as commercial).
- Online consumers were slightly better at correctly identifying the official EHIC website (74%), however, nearly half of respondents thought the example copycat site was official (47%).
Miles Lockwood, Director of Complaints and Investigations said: “While it’s reassuring that our research shows that many people’s online searching tactics protect them from navigating to copycat sites, we can’t ignore the fact that some are still misled into accessing sites they thought were official.
We’re focused on tackling any sites that continue to mislead, in support of other enforcement activity, such as the arrests announced by National Trading Standards eCrime Unit this week. We’re also working with search engines and government to ensure the public are protected. In the meantime, always start at Gov.UK to access a Government service.”
Follow the links below for more information about Government Digital Services campaign and other partner activity:
- Start at Gov.UK – If you start at www.gov.uk, you can be confident that you’ll find the official government source. Visit the GDS campaign page for more information. Follow the campaign on Twitter @GOVUK and #StartAtGOVUK
- Report misleading sites to search engines – Find out how to report a misleading site to Google, Bing or Yahoo here.
- Help friends and family wise up to misleading sites – The National Trading Standards eCrime team has produced consumer advice, including an information video, available here.
- Read our Hot Topic – Read about the work we've carried out to date and access our Hot Topic which provides information on how to avoid being misled by a copycat site and example rulings we’ve made.