Were you one of the unlucky victims of a scam that conned thousands of innocent people as they tried to complete their tax returns last week?
A site which almost exactly replicates the official HMRC website for filing tax returns has been set up by three men from the North East, who insist that the scheme is completely legal and merely takes advantage of loopholes in the law. The men, who are all university educated in business, set up a network of websites that copy the exact layout, colours, font, and even text from genuine government sites, to trick honest, hard working men and women into paying hundreds of pounds for services that are usually provided free of charge. Only a few short sentences in the website’s small print suggest that the site is not affiliated with HMRC and that you will be charged a fee for using its services. With domain names such as TaxReturnGateway.com, passport.uk.com and v5c.uk.com, it is no wonder unsuspecting Britons are falling into the trap set by these sites.
The trio keep their phoney websites at the top of the Google results page by paying Google to advertise them at the top of searches using the most common keywords used to search for help and advice about filing tax returns online, such as “tax returns”, “self-assessment” and “hmrc”. These keywords can be bought at auction by anyone, but the cost of buying such prime Google real estate is undisclosed by both the search engine giant and the website owners.
According to the Mail Online, one customer was charged £500 for submitting her tax return; a fee she assumed was a down payment on her tax bill, until she received a contract from Tax Return Gateway by email and realised she hadn’t been on the official site. She immediately emailed them back to cancel any services, and ask for a refund. She was not able to speak to anyone on the phone as the site only offers email contacts, and their telephone number is outbound only. She was told she was not entitled to a refund as she had received a “comprehensive check and submission service”, even though she filled out her own tax return and filed it on the correct HMRC website as soon as she realised her mistake.
The Advertising Standards agency has received complaints about the fake passport website in the past and has previously forced it to stop claiming to be the “official UK passport application” site. Google has on three previous occasions forced Tax Return Gateway to comply with its regulations: Google will allow a site to advertise with the search engine for products offered free elsewhere only if they include a link to the official government site, and if they state that what they offer is “added value”, on the site’s landing page. The three directors of these scam sites have promised to stop using the same shade of green as the official HMRC site; however this still remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, the men are under no legal obligation to take the sites down, and as long as they adhere to the law, and Google’s regulations, they will continue to deceive innocent tax payers who are unaware of the existence of such websites. Unfortunately, many people choose to submit their own tax returns, thinking that it will be cheaper, but in the case of the customer who lost £500 to this scam, it would have been much cheaper if she had paid a professional to create her entire tax return and submit it for her, with very little effort or stress on her part.
Have you, or has anyone you know been a victim of this scam, or a similar one? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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