Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Upheld.
A website for UK Passport Offices, www.ukpassportoffices.co.uk, as it appeared on 8 July
a. The home page was headed “UK Passport Offices “and smaller text underneath stated “Information Resource” and “Proud to claim No Passport Office or Government Accreditation”. Text at the top of the page also stated “UK Passport Offices.co.uk is Proud to Claim No Government Funding of [sic] Affiliation as the UK’s Leading, Unaccredited Passport Office Advice & Information Resource unconnected to Her Majesty’s Passport Office with all fee’s [sic] paid to us separate to british [sic] passport fee’s [sic]” A menu bar below (and at the bottom of the page) featured the names “Belfast Durham Glasgow Liverpool London Newport Peterborough”
Text near the top of the page next to a photo of three passports stated “Live Passport Advice Helpline Tel [phone number] Applications & Renewals Fast Track & 1 Day Service Our Fees Separate to Passport Fees Passport Office Appointments” Links underneath stated “Emergency Appointment” and “Apply Online Here”
A sidebar down the left of the page offered an “Office Locator search function and a map of the UK pointing to the cities listed above Below that there was a link to, and picture of, the passport application form, and at the bottom of the sidebar was a link stating, “GOV UK CLICK HERE”, both against a maroon passport coloured background
Text in the body copy of the web page, under another heading, “UK Passport Offices”, stated “This website provides information on all seven regional Passport Offices throughout the United Kingdom. There are just 7 authorised offices in the UK located in Belfast, Glasgow ... all operated by Her Majesty’s Passport Office ... There are three ways to secure a passport . It also stated “We are proud to claim no government funding or affiliation operating as an independent organisation from the government and Her Majesty’s Passport Office with no ability to issue passports and all fee’s [sic] paid to us not coming off the passport fee itself as we provide a range of optional value added services relating to British passports (see below comparison chart) not offered by HMPO even providing applicants with an optional Passport Office Exemption which saves the applicant time, travel and accommodation costs in attending their regional Passport Office in person.”
Further down the page a table compared the services offered by UK Passport Offices and HMPO (Her Majesty’s Passport Office), showing that both the advertiser and HMPO provided a “Free Premium or Fast Track Passport Office Appointment”; but that only the advertiser offered (among other services): “Online Passport Office Appointment Booking Form (2417)”, “One 30 minute Passport Advice Consultation with Senior Specialist”, the “Passport Application Form Translated into 50 Languages & Access to Multilingual Staff’, “Option to Complete Passport Application/Renewal/Lost Forms over the phone with a specialist guiding you step by step”, “Optional Passport Office Exemption saving you time, travel and accomodation [sic] costs” and “How To Prepare For Your Appointment Videos & Email advice”.
b. Clicking on “Apply Online Here” in ad (a) linked to a web page headed “Passport Application Services” which included three links, against a maroon background featuring passports, stating “BEGIN PROCESS” in blue, under the headings “1 DAY PREMIUM SERVICE”, “7 DAYS FAST TRACK SERVICE” AND “3-6 WEEKS STANDARD PROCESS”.
Text in the body copy below included “As part of our service we will arrange your free appointment and you will receive the following services as part of the unaccredited service that we offer to UK applicants The fee that you pay us does not come off the passport fee as this will be due to Her Majesty’s Passport Office on the day of your appointment. Our charges and value added services can be avoided by using the governments www.Gov.uk service” and the web page included the same table as ad (a) comparing services offered by UK Passport Offices and HMPO
Clicking on the “BEGIN PROCESS” links led users though a number of web pages where they had to submit their details Clicking “Submit application” linked to a web page headed “Payment Now Required” and text which stated “You now need to make payment of £117.60” in red and further text which stated “You can pay this online or over the pone using a credit or debit card. Alternatively you can use mobile, telephone, online banking or pay the fee via your local Post Office”. Clicking on a link which stated “PAY VIA CREDIT CARD OR DEBIT CARD ONLINE NOW” led to a web page which invited users to submit their card details and click “Pay”
If the user scrolled down to the bottom of each web-page, the following appeared in small print:
“Information on UK Passports can also be provided on an official basis by the post and passport offices. [...]. UKPassportOffices.co.uk is not affiliated with the government or Her Majesty’s Passport Office (previously known as the Identity & Passport Services, IPS). This website and its helpline should not be considered a professional advice service and any information provided should be checked with the Passport Office as our helpline and services are provided without any warranty or guarantee as to their accuracy, or fitness for any particular purpose. All services are used at your own risk. Fees that you pay us, UKPassportOffices.co.uk are non-refundable and do not come off the passport fee as we are unaccredited, independent organisation with no ability to issue passports. Rates start at £98 + VAT for our service however this can increase depending on how quickly the appointment is required and how busy we are. [...] Fee’s [sic] for adult passport payable to the Passport Office are £72.50, £106.50 or £128 depending on the service chosen, or £46 or £87 for a single child passport. This services content has been collated from a range of official sources. You can contact us via the post at UK Services & Support Ltd, [address given]”
The complainant challenged whether the website:
1. misleadingly implied that it was the official website for HMPO; and
2. was misleading, because it did not make clear that the fee charged by the advertiser was a service charge only, and that an additional fee was payable to HMPO to obtain a passport.
1. & 2. UK Services & Support Ltd contended that they traded as UK Passport Information Offices or ukpassportoffices.co.uk, and not as UK Passport Offices. They said they included a number of statements in the header of each page of their website which advised visitors that they were an independent, unaccredited service with no government or HMPO affiliation, and that the fee they charged was not for the passport itself. They included these to ensure that visitors could make an informed decision as to whether or not to use their service. They also believed that the line “Booking Appointment for You” in the header of each page made clear they were an agency that booked appointments for people on their behalf, rather than taking bookings directly. They had added the statement “Our fees separate to Passport Fee’s” [sic] having been advised previously by the ASA to add it on a similar website of theirs Text at the bottom of each web page gave further clarification of the nature of their service, and that their fee was not the passport fee This text was presented in a clear black font on a white background.
They said that upon clicking one of the booking buttons, applicants were taken to a web page which further clarified that their fee did not come off or include the passport fee due to HMPO The ad included a link to the gov uk website so that consumers could use that service if they preferred Other steps in the application process provided further information and clarification and the terms and conditions presented were easy to understand and included their service fee, a breakdown of the passport fees and that they could avoid their service charges by going direct Consumers were required to confirm they had read, understood and agreed to the terms and conditions before continuing They said their booking form referred to the Passport Office in the third person which reminded consumers that they were separate to them They also said their website’s references to forfeiting cancellation rights and to late payment charge emphasised the impression they were a commercial website, rather than a government one They said none of the passport fees charged by HMPO were identical to the service charges they levied For these reasons they did not believed that the average consumer would be misled by their website.
They referred to a report of research conducted for the ASA by Ipsos MORI entitled “Consumer experiences of copycat websites”, and published in July 2014. The research sought to assess consumers’ experiences of websites which offer access to online government services but which are not the official channels, and which often charge a premium for their service. It included a quantitative survey of over 1,000 UK consumers, and some qualitative research, including in relation to one unofficial passport website (not the advertisers’) compared with the official site. The advertisers noted that, when participants were instructed to consider a screenshot of the non-official passport website and asked whether the website was commercial or official, 83% of participants overall correctly identified the website as commercial. They also noted that the website avoided using many of the features which the Ipsos MORI research suggested contributed to a misleading impression, including: not using the word ‘official’, not using ‘direct’ or ‘gov’ in their website address, not using a crown or crest artwork, not using a confusing name, not basing the design of their site on government websites, using an information packed website, not using small or unclear images, using clear disclaimers and distinctive logos and branding. They noted that passports needed to be renewed only once every 10 years and it was a process which consumers would approach with care. They believed that consumers used their service knowing they were independent and having chosen to use their value added services, knowing exactly what they were paying for.
They also said that since receiving the complaint, and in part to reflect advice given by Merton Trading Standards (following complaints which Merton had received), they had made a number of changes to the ad. They no longer used any pictures of the passport application form and had added text to their comparison table regarding “Per Applicant Charge” with “2:98” for their service and “FREE” for the HMPO service. They had added the comparison chart to all seven pages that referred to the Passport Offices throughout the UK to ensure that that information was immediately visible to consumers who did not enter their website via the home page. More recently they had removed “UK Passport Offices” from their logo.
THIS RULING REPLACES THAT PUBLISHED ON 17 SEPTEMBER 2014. THE VERDICT REMAINS UPHELD BUT THE WORDING HAS CHANGED.
The ASA acknowledged that since receiving the complaint, UK Passport Offices had made a number of changes to the ad. Notwithstanding those changes, we assessed the ad as appeared at the time of the complaint.
1. & 2. Upheld
The ASA understood that the www.ukpassportoffices.co.uk website enabled users to apply for a passport or make an appointment at a passport office, but was not the official government channel for that service. The www.ukpassportoffices.co.uk website charged for their application verification service, and their fees did not include the fee charged by HMPO, which consumers would still be required to pay directly to HMPO. We understood those fees varied, but that a standard adult passport delivered via the normal service cost £72.50.
The ASA had regard to the Ipsos MORI report as providing a useful guide to how consumers were likely to interact with non-official websites offering access to Government services, whilst also being aware of its limitations - in particular each case must be assessed on its facts, and a survey that presented a screenshot to a consumer and asked whether it was official or not did not necessarily replicate a real-life situation where a consumer had navigated to a website themselves. We noted that Ipsos MORI found that consumers invariably relied on search engines to find official services and that there was limited awareness of the existence of copycat websites or of legitimate businesses charging a premium for official services online. We noted that the report stated that of the features most important to participants in helping to decide whether or not a website was official, logo was the most important (44% of participants), followed by URL (41%), name of the website (39%) and general design or look and feel (35%). Disclaimers were often missed, and comparison tables tended to confuse subjects. We acknowledged that in the case of the non-official passport website considered in the Ipsos MORI research 83% of participants had correctly identified that website as commercial, but noted that that website differed significantly in look from the advertiser’s website, and in the case of sample unofficial sites for other Government services a more significant proportion of consumers had been misled.
Turning to the advertisers’ website, we considered the site from the point of view of the average consumer, interested in obtaining or renewing a UK passport, who was reasonably well informed and reasonably observant and circumspect. We took the view that such a consumer would be unlikely to be a regular visitor to passport websites, might need to obtain a passport rapidly, and/or might be obtaining their first passport and/or might not have English as their first language. We also considered that the average consumer was likely to infer that a website providing application services for a government issued document, such as a passport, was official unless it made clear that was not the case. Whilst the suffixes .gov and.org were not used, we noted that consumers would reach this site via the URL, www.ukpassportoffices.co.uk. That, and the name of the website, UK Passport Offices, accompanied (in several places) by the locations of the UK Government’s official passport offices, plus prominent pictures of passports in front of a Union Flag and the hands of someone apparently checking forms, and of a passport application form, were likely to convey the initial impression to visitors of an official website for passport services. Other references, including to an “Official Passport Office Notice” on the first page, the invitations to “Begin Process” for various services (accompanied by pictures of passports) on the second and the bold link “GOV.UK” against a maroon passport coloured background on both pages did nothing to dispel that impression
The website included a number of disclaimers that UK Passport Offices were independent from HMPO and the government and that any fees paid directly to them were separate from the fee for the passport However, the web pages contained a great deal of text and we considered that those disclaimers could easily be overlooked. We also considered that because the application process would be the main focus of consumers’ attention, and they were able to proceed without reading the disclaimers, the average consumer visiting the website would therefore not read the disclaimers before proceeding with the application process. In the absence of a clear disclaimer the image of the passports was also likely to contribute to a misleading impression that the website was the official channel to obtain them The “URGENT” stamps suggested an appeal to those seeking a passport urgently who would be less likely to browse through the small print.
The web pages included a comparison table which referred to “HMPO” which stated that HMPO charges were “FREE”. However, the web pages included a great deal of text, and the comparison table appeared below the calls to action such as “Apply Online Here” and “BEGIN PROCESS” and consumers were therefore unlikely to scroll down the page to see the table in full. We also considered that the average consumer would be unfamiliar with the reference to “HMPO”. Even if a consumer did engage with the comparison table, we noted that it made offers of a “consultation with a Senior Specialist”, an option to complete various forms “over the phone with a specialist guiding you step by step” and videos offering “advice”, but the footnote at the very bottom of the page stated that the website “should not be considered a professional advice service and any information provided should be checked with the Passport Office as our helpline and services are provided without any warranty or guarantee as to their accuracy, or fitness for any particular purpose. All services are used at your own risk”. We considered that consumers were likely to understand the “Online Passport Office Appointment Booking Form (24/7)” as enabling them to book an appointment with HMPO, but in fact it only provided details to the advertiser, which could only then book the requested appointment subject to availability at HMPO. We also noted that none of the promised translations of the application form into 50 languages were available, all apparently still “under development” when the user tried to access them from the relevant web page.
Information regarding the HMPO charges, and that these were separate from those charged by UK Passport Offices, was included in the terms and conditions, which consumers were required to tick to say they had read. However, we considered that in the context of an application for a passport consumers were unlikely to read the terms and conditions in full, and that it was not sufficient to include important material information there.
We considered that the average consumer would not be aware of the exact amount usually charged by HMPO for a passport and that it was important that the UK Passport Offices’ website made clear that they charged a premium for their commercial application verification service, and that the fee charged by HMPO was separate.
We considered that in cases such as this where there was a significant risk of the consumer being misled as to the nature of the service being offered, a prominent disclaimer should have been presented immediately alongside calls to action such as “Apply online here” and “Begin process” and the most prominent price statements on each page.
Because the website did not make it sufficiently clear it was not the official website to obtain a passport we concluded it was misleading. We also concluded the website was misleading, because it did not make clear that the fee charged by the advertiser was a service charge only, and that an additional fee was payable to HMPO to obtain a passport.
The ads 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), 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) and 3.17 3.17 Price statements must not mislead by omission, undue emphasis or distortion. They must relate to the product featured in the marketing communication. (Prices).
The website must not appear again in the form complained of. 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. It should include on each page a prominent disclaimer alongside calls to action such as “Apply now” or similar and the most prominent price statements. The disclaimer should be clearly worded and presented separately from other information to ensure it was prominent and would be read by consumers.