Rip-off copycat ads running rife on search engines, Which? warns

Copycat ads are running rife on search engines and misleading consumers into paying more than they need to for health cards, driving licences and visas – and one ad was even proposing to break the law, a Which? investigation has found. 

The consumer champion searched on Google for common travel documents – such as health cards, visas and international drivers’ licences – to see whether copycat ads would appear.

These copycat ads are paying for prime slots at the top of search engines – often appearing above the official website and with a similar web address. Consumers could click on these ads without realising they are not using the official website.

Which? research found 18 ads overcharging consumers for services they can get for free through official channels. One of these ads was even proposing to break the law by offering a licence to drive in Spain without a driver’s test.

When Which? contacted the advertiser through its live chat service, posing as a UK motorist who had been banned from driving, the respondent claimed that for £685 (€800) they could use contacts in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) to wipe out the ban and get a new, clean driver’s licence. There is no evidence that the respondent had any contacts in the DVLA.

Two weeks after Which? reported the site to Action Fraud it was still live. It was also reported to the DVLA and Trading Standards, and finally the ad disappeared.

The other ads were all reported to Google. Following this, there was one day when the top search results were the official websites. However, six weeks later there were 14 new copycat ads in their place – many of which appeared to be from the same companies as before, but with new URLs.

For people running copycat websites, Brexit has provided the perfect opportunity to exploit travellers’ confusion about the documents they need to travel abroad.

Three of the top six results on Google when Which? researchers searched for Global Health Insurance Card (Ghic) were trying to charge at least £30 each for it. The Ghic is available for free through the NHS.

One copycat website attempted to justify its costs by saying it was a ‘hassle’ to claim through the NHS. However, its process took longer – 10-14 days, rather than the seven-10 days cited by the NHS website.

A similar issue occurred with visas. When Which? googled ‘UAE visa application’, the top results were for copycat websites charging up to £136 ($189) for a two week visa, which British travellers can get for free on arrival.

Copycat ads for international and UK driving licences were also common. One copycat website told consumers they would need an international licence to drive in Spain, which they sold for £35 ($49). This is misleading as unless UK drivers have an old-fashioned paper licence, they do not need any additional permit to drive in the EU. Many countries outside the EU do require an International Driving Permit (IDP) – but consumers can get one for £5.50 from the Post Office.

A separate Which? investigation into DVLA copycat ads for drivers’ licence renewals in the UK found that almost three quarters (73%) of the most common driving licence renewal searches return ads for third-party websites charging £50 to £100 – seven times the official fee – to ‘check’ and renew licences.

Eight third-party ads appeared on a single search on Bing for ‘how to renew a driving licence’, all charging at least double the DVLA rate for ‘checking’ and renewal.  On Google, eight ads appeared for the search ‘renew driving licence at 70’. All adverts dominated top search results and charged £50 for renewal for those aged over 70 – even though this is free from the DVLA.

These ‘checking’ services are not offered by the DVLA, but there is little difference between the official DVLA renewal process and those of unaffiliated sites that offer these services.  In many cases, these sites use the same processing methods people would use with the DVLA and offer a poor value for money for ‘checking’ services that consumers do not need.

Two websites Which? found looked and felt extremely similar to the DVLA government website and could easily be mistaken for it. These websites were reported to the National Cyber Security Centre to be taken down.

Google’s decision to ban adverts from government services without an obvious benefit to consumers was a positive step. But ads are still slipping through the net and search engines need to do much more to prevent copycats and outright fraudsters from buying adverts aimed at ripping off its users.

Which? believes online platforms need to take more responsibility for the content they host, while online platforms should be legally required to verify businesses posting paid-for content before their ad is published.

Search engines must also provide clear, easy to use reporting tools for consumers to report ads which might breach their guidelines and cause consumer harm.

Adam French, Which? Consumer Rights Expert, said: 

“Copycat ads have been a problem for years so it is concerning to see them still appearing at the top of search results – often ahead of the official website – and charging unnecessary fees.

“Search engines must take more responsibility for the ads that appear and verify the business before misleading ads are published in the first place.

“In the meantime, unfortunately it is on us to keep an eye out for copycat ads. If trying to renew a driver’s licence, get a health card or apply for a visa, make sure you are using the official website so you aren’t left footing any unnecessary bills.”

– ENDS – 

Notes to editors 

Which? researchers  searched Google for official travel documents in February, March and April 2021 to see if copycat ads would appear. The consumer champion found eighteen copycat ads which were all reported to Google. For one day, the top results were the official websites. However, six weeks later, there were fourteen new copycat ads in their place.

A separate Which? investigation spent two weeks searching the same five common driving licence-related terms on Google and Bing to analyse how many third-party websites appeared in search ads above the DVLA result. 73% of searches returned one or more of these types of ads.

Eight third-party ads appeared on a single search on Bing for ‘how to renew a driving licence’, all charging at least double the DVLA rate for ‘checking’ and renewal.  On Google, eight ads appeared for the search ‘renew driving licence at 70’. All adverts dominated top search results and charged £50 for renewal for those aged over 70 – even though it’s free from the DVLA.

Right of replies 

A DVLA Spokesperson said: “We regularly remind our customers that the only official place to find our services and information online is on GOV.UK. Only DVLA can renew a driving licence, and those applying for or renewing a licence online should only use GOV.UK, to ensure they are dealing with DVLA directly.

“Whilst the majority of government services are free on GOV.UK we’re aware that some third party sites charge a premium. Such sites are not affiliated with DVLA in any way.

“When we become aware of sites misleading motorists, we work closely with other government agencies and third parties to raise the issue. If we believe a website is operating outside the advertising guidelines we will inform the relevant enforcement and controlling bodies.”

A Google spokesperson said: “We have strict policies that govern the types of ads and advertisers we allow on our platforms. We only allow Governments or their delegated providers to advertise for official documents or services. When ads breach our policies we take action to remove them.”

A Microsoft (which owns Bing) spokesperson said: “As our policies clearly state, advertisers who promote products and services must ensure they comply with all applicable local laws and regulatory requirements. We encourage people to report possible deceptive or fraudulent ads they may be seeing so we can review and take action as appropriate.”

About Which?

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.

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