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Consumer law: Unofficial sites face prosecution, says Trading Standards

Trading Standards has warned operators of bogus 'official' websites that they face prosecution if they continue to deceive customers, reports BBC Northern Ireland.

The websites purport to offer 'official' assistance to obtain services such as booking an MOT or applying for a European Health Insurance Card.

These services are available to any citizen through official channels, yet these companies make money from selling access.

Trading Standards emphasised that the actual business model is legal and that there is nothing wrong with offering a 'value added' service for an additional fee.

However, they warned that websites that purported to offer essential services, in a bid to deceive customers into thinking this was an 'official' route, would be prosecuted.

The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) is offered free by the NHS upon completion of a simple application form, but many sites offer a service to obtain the card for a fee of up to £40.

Effectively, all the website is doing is taking the completed form and submitting it to the NHS, then forwarding on the card to the applicant.

Whilst this is not illegal in itself, if a site purports to be the only 'official' way to obtain the EHIC then it would be misleading the customer and liable to face punishment.

Damien Doherty represents Trading Standards in Northern Ireland.

"It is important that companies are clear about the service they are offering, and do not trick people into paying for something that they can get for free or much cheaper on government websites," he said.

To avoid prosecution websites must make it very clear they are unofficial and are offering an additional service beyond that offered for free from a government website.