Dealing with the aftermath of financial scams inflicted upon readers of The Mail on Sunday is my bread and butter.
Sometimes, I’m left devastated by the losses people have incurred, especially if I can’t get them recompense, but I try not to take such thoughts home with me.
But when the scam is committed against your own flesh and blood, it becomes personal.
Last month, my 18-year-old son Harrison was the victim of a copycat website scam. Financially, it didn’t prove costly, but the thought that a company could set out to trick a youngster making his way in life enraged me.
Tricked: Harrison Walne used Book Your Driving Test Online, one of a number of fee-charging sites which prey on drivers
Harrison’s mistake was to book his practical driving test via a website called Book Your Driving Test Online. He thought it was the official website, but it wasn’t. As a result, he paid £94 for something that should have cost him £62.
Trying to track down this copycat villain turned into a globe- trotting whodunnit – taking me from San Francisco to the jungles of Yilan in northern Taiwan. Then a midnight rendezvous in Japan.
But as the trail ran cold I shared the feelings every parent suffers as their children grow up – anger turning to a sense of impotence at not being able to always protect them – as the world is awash with scams.
Around 1.6million people a year take the practical driving test for a one-off £62.
Dodgy website Book Your Driving Test Online – whose internet address is bookyourdrivingtests.co.uk – is just one of a growing breed of copycat websites that act as a third party to book the official test for a fee on top of the £62.
They rely on learners accidentally clicking on their website rather than the real Government-approved gov.uk link, where you can book your driving test.
Incredibly, the ruse is perfectly legal as hidden in the small print are details of the additional fee.
Having been told by his instructor he was ready to take a driving test, Harrison rushed online with my blessing to book the test – clutching my credit card.
I trusted his computer skills more than my own to navigate the internet minefield.
As required before taking the test, he had already passed a separate theory exam that had cost £23 and which he had booked online without any trouble – using the official website.
Having put ‘book your driving test’ into Google, Harrison immediately came across website Book Your Driving Test Online.
The site looked clean and professional with logos of Mastercard, Visa and a strapline ‘100 per cent guaranteed safe & secure online’ to make it appear trustworthy.
I asked him when the test was booked for – with the official website you get a time immediately. Harrison said he was waiting for a reply. I smelt a rat
He tapped in his details and clicked on a box accepting the website’s terms and conditions. In doing so, he inadvertently agreed to pay the £32 ‘admin fee’. He had already provided his personal details, including driving licence information, plus my card payment details. This alone could be valuable data for online fraudsters if it fell into the wrong hands.
As soon as he got off the website I asked him when the test was booked for – with the official gov.uk website you get a time and date immediately. Harrison said he was waiting for a reply. I smelt a rat.
Around 1.6million people a year take the practical driving test for a one-off £62
As a protective father I wanted to hunt down the tricksters and confront them face-to-face. It should have been simple.
After all, how can a company exist and sell a service without you being able to find out who they are? But the website had no details – even in its terms of conditions.
Illegal? ‘It is not good practice but the website is not acting against the law,’ admitted a spokesman for the National Trading Standards that I had asked to help me track down the firm.
With a ‘co.uk’ suffix I assumed it was a British company but there was no active firm of that name listed at Companies House, which keeps a list of all firms registered in Britain.
Then I struck on the idea of finding where the website was registered. Using the internet search tool ‘Whois’ offered by website DomainTools I discovered it was registered in California – there was no address other than San Francisco.
But there was a contact name given – ‘Tingying Chen’ – and he had kindly included his phone number and email address. This showed he lived not in San Francisco but in the Yilan province of Taiwan.
Phoning at 9:30pm local time, a male answered. Seeming to confirm he was Tingying he said in broken English: ‘I design websites – but am not sure if this is one of mine. Please email me.’ I did. Just after midnight local time an email was sent back from a Yami Takarai – a different person and a Japanese name. The response was succinct: ‘This site was not built by me or our company. You may misunderstand.’ A dead end.
Beware these other driving test copycats
The Book Your Driving Test Online website is just one of a growing number of driving test copycats on the internet – ripping customers off to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
Another is Book Your Driving Test run by Booking Direct – found at bookingdirect.org.uk. It also includes credit card logos along with a ‘256 Bit SSL Secured Site’ image to make you feel safe.
With questions about special needs and whether drivers wanted the practical test to be in Welsh or English, it offered an official looking touch.
But you needed a magnifying glass to notice under ‘Section 6’ of the terms and conditions that a £32 administration fee is levied on top of the standard £62 cost of a practical test.
These copycat websites also take advantage of those wanting to take the £23 theory test.
Again, this can be booked directly through the gov.uk website at no extra cost.
The Book Your Driving Test Online site demanded an extra £32 levy on top of the £23 theory test fee. The similarly named but entirely separate Book Your Driving Test copycat charged an additional £33.
These websites also have sections where you can put in a date and time preference – but they are not as good as the official gov.uk website where you handpick the best date and time with availability shown immediately.
With a copycat website you can wait days for them to get back with a suitable date.
Another site, Earlier Driving Test, demanded £19.99 for being put on ‘a driving test list’ – or £24.99 for ‘priority’ and £29.99 for ‘VIP’ treatment. Another website, Driving Test Cancellations, charged £18 for finding an early test slot.
But again such services are available at no cost if you book a driving test via the official gov.uk website.
Google refuses to take down copycats websites that can be found using its search engine
As for Harrison, he took his practical test a month early after finding a cancellation on the official website. Last week he ripped off his L plates.
National Trading Standards believes such copycat websites operate on the fringes of legality – and would like them banned.
It says: ‘They are deliberately misleading. There is often an emotional sense of urgency when booking a test that makes people vulnerable – and these third parties take advantage.’
Search engines such as Google have the power to stop such copycat websites from fleecing people. But Google refuses to take down the dozens of copycats that can quickly be found using its search engine.
Google refuses to take down the dozens of copycats that can quickly be found
It claims it will not take money to advertise such websites higher up in search rankings if it is aware of what the business does.
A spokesman says: ‘Because we want adverts people see on Google to be relevant, we have policies that prevent promotions that charge for a service that is already available from a government or public source for free.’
National Trading Standards says drivers should avoid search engines altogether and go through the official gov.uk website. It also calls for such websites to be reported to the Citizens Advice Scams Action Service on 0300 330 3003 or via website citizensadvice.org.uk.
No one at Book Your Driving Test Online could be traced for a comment. Booking Direct – which runs Book Your Driving Test website – failed to respond to our queries.
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