We tend to be trusting of official-looking websites, but not everyone out there is as honest as we’d like to believe. Even if you’re a scrupulous person, it can be easy to get tricked by an official-looking site. Here are four examples.
These four have caught a lot of people off-guard: make sure you’re not one of them! These aren’t “scam” websites (though it’s important to watch out for scams, too), as they do actually state what they offer and, if you’re paying attention, you’ll see that you’re going to pay more than is required for what you’re looking for. But they’re still quite misleading.
Although the site makes it pretty clear that it’s privately owned and not affiliated with the US government, it can be really easy to skip over those parts of the page and think that you’re applying for or renewing your passport. People are likely to focus their attention on buttons and big links, so there’s a good chance that they’ll miss the disclaimer sections of the homepage.
Even with the warnings, charging a processing fee, a non-refundable reservation fee, and $30 for shipping seems a bit excessive. And if you read the terms and conditions, you’ll see that what’s being offered is only a courier service.
How much money are we talking about here? It depends on how fast you want your application to be delivered. Within 24 hours, you’re looking at $300. A priority service (3-5 days) will set you back $200. The standard service, 8-12 days, costs $100.
As you can see, there are a number of warnings throughout the site that you’ll be paying fees to the US government in addition to US Passport Online. This is actually one of the more clearly labelled sites that I came across. And the terms and conditions state that you can cancel your order within 24 hours for a full refund, except for the non-refundable reservation fee.
To actually renew your passport, all you need to do is fill out a form and either mail it or submit it online to the US State Department. You also need to pay about $160.
If you’re visiting Europe, you’ll need a visa, and a Schengen Visa is a good way to go — it allows you to travel between the 25 countries in the Schengen Area. So how do you get one? If you search for “europe visa” on Google, SchengenVisa.cc is high on the results list.
Sounds like a perfect place to get a visa for visiting Europe! But it won’t get you one. When you click on “start application,” you’re brought to a page that lets you buy an application guide for $60, which tells you how to apply for the visa, when and where to apply for it, an overview of the visa process, border control information, and information on each of the countries in the area.
This guide is not the application.
The warnings are quite a bit less prominent on this site than they are on USPassportOnline, but they’re still there. However, even the button at the top of the page, which says “apply now,” is misleading. The link to this page is under a “download visa application” banner on the homepage, which also makes it seem legitimate.
So how do you actually apply for a visa, and how much does it cost? You have to go to the nearest embassy of the country that you’ll be visiting and apply there. The application fee is €60, payable in local currency, and you might also be paying some processing fees to the embassy.
If you live in the UK, you can apply for a European health insurance card (EHIC) that lets you get reduced-cost or free state-provided healthcare while you’re in continental Europe. This card is free. There’s no cost for it.
However, the very official-looking EuropeanHealthCard.org.uk will charge you up to £25 for proofreading and forwarding services. This is one of the most official-looking misleading websites that I’ve come across, and I’d be willing to bet that a lot of people have paid money that they didn’t have to because of it.
The homepage makes it easy to enter your information quickly and without reading through any terms of service. The user agreement on the homepage also doesn’t mention anything about what will be provided — it just confirms that you entered accurate information.
If you click on “Our Service,” you’ll see a more comprehensive list of what you actually get, and if you read all the way to the bottom of that page you’ll see that by submitting an application to this site, you give up your right to invoke consumer protection regulations and demand a refund before seven days have passed.
If you want an EHIC, you can easily get it for free through the NHS.
If you watch American TV, you’ve probably seen the FreeCreditReport.com commercials — they use a catchy tune, some goofy actors, and the promise of a free credit report to make a really fun and memorable commercial. But they’re on the misleading list, too.
In the States, there are three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These are the companies that keep track of all of your credit cards and loans, and issue reports to companies who want to know if you’re a good investment or not. And they’re required by law to provide you with a copy of your report, for free, once a year. (If you don’t check your credit report once a year, you should.)
AnnualCreditReport is the only official site that provides you these reports for free. If you’re using another site, they’re trying to sell you something. These three sites, for example, all offer the same thing: you get your free reports, but you’re also signed up for a seven-day trial of their credit monitoring service, for which you’ll pay at least $25 per month starting immediately after those seven days unless you call and cancel.
Again, all of this information is there if you look for it, but the ease with which you can get your free reports and get signed up for one of these services means a lot of people have paid money for credit monitoring without realizing it.
What Makes These Sites Look “Official”?
Each site uses different strategies to look official, but there are a few things that they all have in common. They’re generally very well-designed, which makes them look professional, and that makes them easy to trust. I noticed that a lot of them also display a lot of “certified by” badges, like these, displayed on USPassportOnline:
This also makes them look very trustworthy.
One of the tricks that these sites use is that they get themselves to the top of search results pages. Whether they do this with good SEO or by taking out ads, you’ll often see them in the first few results when you search for something. For example, when you search for “renew passport” on Google, the first ad is for USPassportOnline.
If you search for “europe visa,” Schengen Visa Services is on the first page.
These companies know that they provide misleading services, so they make an effort to appear legitimate.
As I went through these sites, it became clear to me that reading terms and conditions is as important as ever. To protect themselves, all websites like this will have their terms of service printed very clearly somewhere on their website, so digging around for them is often worth your time.
If you’d rather not spend the time looking for the fine print, you can always use Ripoff Report, a website that allows consumers to submit reports on websites that they felt were misleading. There are a number of other websites that alert you to fraudulent or misleading activities that you can use, too. And when you do find a misleading site, it’s a good idea to tell others about it.
Have you been misled by any of these websites? Are there others that you feel people should know about? Share your thoughts below!
Image Credit: Quazie via flickr.