Do you know the tell-tale signs of a copycat website?

In recent years, copycat websites have increasingly appeared. These tend to mimic the overall look and feel, including the logo and branding, of the official website they are copying. These websites are designed to retrieve money by offering ‘free trials’ and charging a fee to process or renew official documents that would otherwise be free with their official counterparts. And as we’ve seen from the sheer volume of such sites cropping up, they are proving realistic and deceptive.

Copycat websites use website tools and search engine optimisation (SEO) to achieve a high rank on search engines, indicating incorrectly that the company is legitimate, respected and established. If done successfully and in a sophisticated manner, then often, the real, authentic website may be placed close to the fake copycat one, increasing the confusion to the user.

By occupying many of the top organic and/or paid for search listings on engines, the user will often select the imposter site instead of the official one, resulting in paying a considerable premium for a service that should be free, or at least cheaper. 

The big problem is that these sites are not illegal, and so it is important that we can spot the tell-tale signs of a copycat.

Common copycat websites

Official government and public services websites are typical targets for copycat site creators as these receive a large volume of users accessing their articles for advice and associated services. It may be unknown to the mass public whether these are complementary or charged services, and so without this awareness,  may cause confusion and uncertainty amongst users.

Namely, these include:

  • HMRC tax returns and self-assessment forms
  • Passport applications
  • Driving theory tests
  • European health insurance card applications
  • Birth and marriage certificates
  • Congestion charge payments
  • US visas
  • ESTAs

Keep an eye out too for spam and phishing activities. Bogus providers, for example, imitate trusted, often large e-commerce sites such as Amazon and eBay to dupe and steal personal data. Typically, these emails will notify the receiver of a security breach or request an information update that often also includes a link to a separate website for the reader to continue to. Other attachments can also install malware on the site.

Alarm bells

There are a variety of common themes and features that copycat websites adopt that help to distinguish these fake impersonations from the official sites, and in turn, protect you:

1. Paid search engine ad

Check whether the ‘company’ has a significant number of paid-for search adverts. These are the boxed adverts at the top of the search engine result pages. An official site often appears in the organic search engine optimisation (SEO) section of the search engine results. This is non-paid and appears below these ads.

Do not immediately select the first website(s) you find in a search engine result. Scroll down the page and pay particular attention to the organic search results.

2. Check the website URL

The suffix contained in the URL can be a clear indicator as to the nature, origin and authenticity of the site. If a website shows a ‘’ address, then this indicates it is an official government website. On the other hand, a ‘.org’ suffix does not provide assurance of its official status.

If you are still unsure of the legitimacy of the website then you can check its hosting to provide certainty of its origin.

3. Carefully read the homepage

Before you access any document, input any personal data, or worse, personal information, read the homepage to look out for any odd spelling or grammatical mistakes that makes you question the sites’ professionality. Some copycat websites even say that the specific website is not affiliated with the official body.

The design of the landing page and overall appearance of an official website will often provide information on the department, agency or council’s clear contact details.

4. Price visibility and payment options

As many of these services and help offered by official sites are free or significantly cheaper, at least, there will be less of an emphasis on price. Copycat site creators, however, are more likely to provide separate pages or list the price to encourage conversions and reduce the bounce rate – the speed that the website user leaves the website, often through the failure to find the desired information.

A site that encourages you to pay via a bank transfer should alert you to potentially suspicious activity. When you purchase goods or services using a credit or debit card, there are some rights to getting your money back. These are less present though when a bank transfer occurs.

5. Https vs http

The ‘https://’ at the start of the website address subtly indicates the difference between real and copycat websites. This shows that when a user enters personal information, encryption is in place on the site to protect the users’ details.

A genuine site should display both  ‘https://’ — the ‘s’ crucial as it is short for ‘secure’ — and a locked padlock in the browser window that emerges when you try to log in or register.  When applying the latest version of the browser, then the address bar or the name of the website owner will change green to indicate its validity.

6. Returns policy  

Any product sold online by a reputable retailer should come complete with a shipping and returns policy on its website. It should also include information on how and where to return a faulty item. A standard policy for most companies with an e-commerce presence online will highlight its terms and conditions. A privacy policy —particularly important in light of GDPR coming into force in the UK on 25th May 2018 — and contractual rights granted to the user also feature highly.

7. Look at online reviews

‘Company-managed’ social media sites may well have positive, yet fake reviews. These may be fraudulent to generate an image of good customer service.

It is vital to accumulate reviews from a variety of independent sources such as Sitejabber and TrustPilot. Location-based reviews site, Yelp, can also provide added reassurance by navigating the company’s location and premises’ details.

Look out for strangely or similarly-worded reviews and a high number of new entries. These may indicate interference from an internal or paid-for source, rather than a genuinely happy customer. If these reviews are few or far between or are overly familiar or objective, then these may also indicate false statements.

8. Trust marks

In Europe alone, there are over 50 different and unique trust marks that appear on sites. A supportive and consistent logo can indicate the trustworthiness, credibility, and official status of a particular site. A genuine logo, however, does not necessarily mean the whole website is real. Instead, this should be judged in conjunction with the entire website.

ANEC, a European consumer organisation, for example, found that seven in ten people are more likely to use a website with a trust-mark label or logo.

Spotted a copycat?

The frequency of copycat websites, incidences of copycat-induced payments and reduced confidence are on the rise. The National Trading Standards eCrime Team and #StartAtGOVUK campaign have emphasised the importance of education surrounding understanding copycat websites.  

In cases of suspected copycat activities, get in touch with the website to strongly request a refund. Contact the necessary government department, agency or local government organisation to report the copycat site.

The UK’s national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre, Action Fraud, is the place to go to inform officials of misleading websites, emails and phone numbers. Include a copy of the email you received, the sender’s email address and the date and time it was received. If you replied, also send information on what you included in your email, such as bank, password or address details.

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