The ASA has received large numbers of complaints from consumers about websites that offer access to online government services, but which are not the official channels, and often charge a premium for their service. In July 2014, we published on our website the findings of research, conducted on our behalf by Ipsos MORI, into the public's experience of 'copycat' websites. This formed part of our on-going commitment to protecting consumers from misleading advertising and built on the work we've carried out to date, alongside government, trading standards and search engines, to address concerns about these sites.
Following the publication of the research, the ASA made the decision to conduct several investigations to establish a clear position on how copycat websites should present their services to avoid misleading consumers.
The website www.uk-officialservices.co.uk which promoted a certificate ordering service was accessed via a Google sponsored search in March 2014. It featured a crown emblem above the text "UK Official Services" and stated "Online Certificate Processing - information on births, marriages and deaths". A tickbox menu stated "Certificate choice. Please select a certificate type and provide any additional information requested. We can then choose the appropriate application form". Small text at the side of the web page listed "Additional Benefits" as "Instant email confirmation; 24 Hour customer support; 3D Secure payment processing; Instant email confirmation; Order can be amended prior to final processing; Free track & trace". Further text stated "Disclaimer. We provide a user-friendly website and secure online payment system to facilitate obtaining your document. For the avoidance of doubt, please note that this website is neither owned by nor affiliated with the UK Government, and you may also make your application direct on their website. Uk-officialservices.co.uk levies a service fee for processing your application via this website. This fee also provides you with the services and guarantees as described below. If you do not wish to pay for a processing service fee, please use one of the suggested alternative means of submitting your application".
An MP, who raised the matter on behalf of a constituent who believed that the design of the website resembled that of the government's official website for ordering certificates or renewing passports, challenged whether the ad misleadingly implied that the website was an official website.
TADServices Ltd t/a uk-officialservices.co.uk (TADServices) responded they would amend the website and remove the crown emblem, but considered the website was compliant because it contained disclaimers. During the investigation they informed the ASA they no longer advertised or owned the domain.
The complainant had accessed the website via a Google sponsored search when searching for the term "birth certificate duplicate". The link had led directly to the "Certificate choice" web page of the www.uk-officialservices.co.uk website. The ASA understood that the www.uk-officialservices.co.uk website enabled users to obtain birth, adoption, marriage, civil partnership and death certificates, but was not the official government channel for those services. The www.uk-officialservices.co.uk website charged a premium for that service, in addition to any costs ordinarily charged by the official online channel at www.gov.uk. We considered that consumers were likely to infer that a website which enabled users to obtain government issues certificates was official, unless it made clear that was not the case.
The official online channel for the relevant services was the "Certificate ordering service" on the www.gov.uk website. The overall presentation of the two websites was extremely similar; the advertisers' website used the same layout, font, text placement, and background and font colours as the official channel. Both websites featured a similar crown logo in the same position. The similarity between the websites was therefore likely to mislead users who were familiar with the appearance of the official website.
The term 'official' appeared on the web page, in the heading "UK Official Services". We considered the term 'official' would suggest to some consumers that the website was an official government channel. The use of the term 'official' also lent legitimacy to the website and was likely to misleadingly contribute to consumers' trust and understanding that they were using an official site. The use of a crown emblem was also likely to be understood to represent a royal emblem or government branding and would therefore misleadingly influence consumers' understanding that they were using an official site.
The website design was simple and did not include images or additional graphics apart from the crown emblem and various credit and debit card symbols. We considered those design features were likely to contribute to consumers' trust and understanding that they were using an official site.
The website included a legible disclaimer on the right-hand side of the page under the heading "Disclaimer" in small text which stated that the website was not affiliated with the UK Government and consumers could "make your application direct on their website", and without a service fee. The disclaimer did not name the relevant www.gov.uk website address or provide a link to that channel. We considered that the disclaimer contradicted the overall impression of the web page, which implied that the website was the official service, and that it was therefore misleading.
We also considered that the application process to obtain the certificate, formed of a two-step tick box questionnaire, would be the main focus of consumers' attention. The disclaimer was placed to the side of that main information, and was surrounded by further information about the website's "Additional Benefits" and the payment options. Moreover, the disclaimer was presented in the same style of colouring and font as the rest of the web page. Many consumers would therefore not read the disclaimer before proceeding with the application process. Consumers were less likely to notice the disclaimer in the context of a website which included the design features described above, such as the term "official", the crown emblem and the website's general appearance, and which we considered were likely to contribute to consumers' trust and understanding that they were using an official site.
We considered that to ensure consumers were fully aware of the nature of the service being offered, a prominent disclaimer should have been presented immediately alongside calls to action, such as "Apply now" and the most prominent price statements on each page. Such a disclaimer should be clearly worded and presented separately from other information to ensure it was prominent and would be read by consumers. It should contain sufficient additional information to allow consumers to understand the non-official nature of the service on offer and the additional cost of using that service compared to using the official service directly. As best practice, it should do the following: state that the certificates are available directly from the official www.gov.uk website, specify their cost (or a "from" price if they varied) provide a link to that website and state that TADServices charge an additional amount for their application verification service and specify that amount (or a "from price if the amount varied). Further clarity could be obtained by repeating this information on the final page of the online application process before consumers completed the transaction.
Because the website featured a crown emblem and used the term "official", because the disclaimer contradicted the overall impression of the page and the application information was presented in a manner which was likely to influence consumers into believing that they were using the official channel, we concluded that the website was likely to mislead.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.
Marketing communications must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.
Material information is information that the consumer needs to make informed decisions in relation to a product. Whether the omission or presentation of material information is likely to mislead the consumer depends on the context, the medium and, if the medium of the marketing communication is constrained by time or space, the measures that the marketer takes to make that information available to the consumer by other means. (Misleading advertising) and 3.9 3.9 Marketing communications must state significant limitations and qualifications. Qualifications may clarify but must not contradict the claims that they qualify. (Qualification).
The website must not appear again in its current form. We told TADServices Ltd not to use the term "official" to describe the services they offered, not to feature a crown emblem in a logo or elsewhere, to ensure that any disclaimers did not contradict the overall impression of their website, and not to present the website in a manner likely to influence consumers into believing that they were using the official channel, including by using a similar design to the official gov.uk website.
We also told them to include a prominent disclaimer alongside calls to action such as "Apply now" or similar and the most prominent price statements on each page. The disclaimer should be clearly worded and presented separately from other information to ensure it was prominent and would be read by consumers.
It should contain sufficient additional information to allow consumers to understand the non-official nature of the service on offer and the additional cost of using that service compared to using the official service directly. As best practice it should do the following: state that the certificates are available directly from the official www.gov.uk website, specify their cost (or a "from" price if they varied) provide a link to that website and state that TADServices Ltd charge an additional amount for their application verification service and specify that amount (or a "from price if the amount varied). For additional clarity, this information would be repeated on the final page of the online application process before consumers complete the transaction.