Consumers warned to be search engine savvy

Published 22 June 2011

Consumer Focus is urging holiday makers to be search engine savvy when they try to access essential services through the web.

Research by Consumer Focus’ Investigations teams has shown that using popular search engines to search for government services can sometimes lead you to companies which charge consumers for receiving free information or services.

Gemma Bowen, Head of Consumer Focus Investigations, said: “Search engines are an essential part of everyday life for millions of people across the UK, but we want to remind people that they need to use the same principle of ‘shopping around’ for web services as they would for other services.

“Our investigation has thrown up examples where the websites listed at the top on search engines don’t necessarily offer the best deal for consumers.”

As an example, Ms Bowen cites the European Health Insurance card – a free service which ensures UK holidaymakers get access to health treatment while on holiday in Europe.

“Last year, we started looking at sites which were offering services to the public for which there was either no fee payable or a set fixed fee but for which some private websites were charging a higher fee.  Specific sites included ones offering to book driving theory tests and renew European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC).

“The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) investigated five sites offering consumers a review and forward service for their EHIC applications.  Three sites agreed to change the way they operate, one closed down and the fifth had its domain name suspended.  The OFT concluded that the companies were trading unfairly and that the sites were designed to deceive the end user in to believing they were official sites and that they omitted to make clear they were not the official site for EHICs.”

However, the most popular search engines continue to return non-official companies as the top suggestion when you search for EHIC, or E111 (the old name for the card).

Ms Bowen added: “Consumers need to remember that the European Health Insurance Card is free. Paying more can’t get you a better card, or get it more quickly. Consumers need to be search engine savvy. If you were buying something on the high street, or finding a builder – you’d get a couple of quotes and find the best deal. The same rules apply on-line: don’t just take the first option a search engine gives you, particularly if the first option is a paid for and highlighted ad.  There may be a better deal available.”

While it is difficult to accurately gauge the level of unnecessary payments made by consumers to these kinds of websites, at a conservative estimate millions of pounds are paid on an annual basis. Even the most sophisticated end user can be caught out and effectively ‘tricked’ in to paying an unnecessary additional fee.


Driving tests are another area where consumers can end up paying more than they should with sites offering to book theory and driving tests for fee payable in addition to the fixed booking cost. 

Other examples include: Passport applications, Visa applications, Child benefit and Tax credits.

Below is the link to the section of the official site to apply for EHICs and it shows that consumers are paying fees to the unofficial sites on an almost daily basis.

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