4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.

USPassportOnline

us passport online home   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.

us passport online costs   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.

 

us passport online summary   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.

Schengen Visa Services

schengen visa home1   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.

schengen visa includes   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.

EuropeanHealthCard

european health card home   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.
european health card terms   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.

CreditReport, FreeScoreOnline, and FreeCreditReport

free score online   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.)

credit report   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.
annual credit report   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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:

us passport online certs   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

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.

renew passport search   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

If you search for “europe visa,” Schengen Visa Services is on the first page.

europe visa search   4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

These companies know that they provide misleading services, so they make an effort to appear legitimate.

Protect Yourself

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.

33 Comments - Write a Comment

1 votes
Reply

dragonmouth

http://www.fafsa.com and http://www.fafsa.org that, for a nominal fee, will help you fill out the Federal Student Aid application and find scholarships.

The same services, and more, can and should be obtained for free at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov

0 votes

Dann A

I didn’t know about these, or else I would’ve included them for sure—filling out a FAFSA is irritating enough without getting mislead about what you’re applying for.

Thanks for reading!

0 votes
Reply

Lu Mace

Great article, thanks for posting :)

0 votes

Dann A

Glad you liked it, Lu! Thanks for the comment.

0 votes
Reply

Justin P

Sites like these infuriate me, and I’m glad you’re pointing them out.

0 votes

Dann A

They really irritate me, too. Hopefully articles like this one and drawing more attention to them will encourage a bit more transparency. It seems like some of them are trying to cover themselves by including that information in a slightly more accessible place, which is good, but I don’t think it’s quite enough.

Thanks for the comment!

1 votes
Reply

grzz40

annualcreditreport.com provides free credit reports but does not provide free credit scores. The article should be tweaked to include that fact.

0 votes

Dann A

Thanks for pointing this out, grzz. You’re right—you can’t get credit scores from annualcreditreport.com. As dragonmouth points out below, Credit Karma is an option for that. Though there seems to be some debate over which is more important (the report or the score), it certainly can’t hurt to get both.

1 votes
Reply

dragonmouth

For free cerdit reports and FICO scores, try CreditKarma.com

0 votes

Dann A

That’s one of the sites that I found was recommended in my research. Definitely a good option. Thanks for reminding me!

0 votes

dragonmouth

I have been using it for a while. So far they have not asked me for any money. :-) Any time there is a change in my score, I get notified by CreditKarma via email. My only concern is how secure is my data, but that is a concern with any site.

1 votes
Reply

pmw

Since this article appears to be to a primarily US and UK audience, you might note that no visa is required to visit most EU states unless the traveler will exceed 90 days in a 180 day period for US passport holders (and virtually no restrictions on UK passport holders).

0 votes

Dann A

Ah yes, thanks for pointing this out. I should have started that paragraph with “if you’re visiting Europe for a long period of time” or something to that affect. Good catch!

0 votes
Reply

Vraeleragon

If you’re dealing with government agency, school loans or aids, immigration, etc, you should ONLY go to websites with .gov at the end, nothing else. This is only for US though. I thought this is a common knowledge. Apparently not.

0 votes

Dann A

I’m not sure if it’s common knowledge, but if it is, I think people forget about it. That’s why the “official-looking” part is so important. If your site looks like it might be a .gov site, some people won’t check. It’s easy to get into the habit of just judging a website by how it looks, and people fall into that trap often.

Also, I would imagine that because there are sites like annualcreditreport.com, which is government-authorised, that don’t have a .gov address, some people might think this doesn’t always apply. Not sure about that, though.

Thanks for reading!

0 votes

dragonmouth

@Vraeleragon:
People are so used to going to “.com” sites that they just don’t think of “.edu, .gov, .org” extensions. It is automatic to put “.com” at the end of an URL, I have done it many times myself. Shady sites take advantage of that, ex. whitehouse.com :-)

0 votes
Reply

Warren B

Actually, didn’t this issue pop up recently with people attempting to get signed up for insurance plans under Obamacare? I can’t remember the exact website names but I believe the only difference between the government site and the scam site was the extensions .gov, .com, and possibly .org It happened to the national website, and several of the state driven websites. Very easy to mistype the extension, and the scam sites would be setup almost exactly like the real sites, except for the fact they were out to steal money, instead of honestly helping customers.

0 votes

Dann A

I didn’t hear about that, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. I think that whenever a lot of people are going to be looking for the same thing, someone will be there to take advantage of the mistakes that they make. Unfortunately, it’s all legal and technically above-board, but it’s just misleading enough for them to make a lot of money. The .gov / .org thing doesn’t make it any easier, either.

Thanks for reading!

0 votes
Reply

Promarketing.ann

Beware of sites posing as fake government sites for driver’s license and tag renewal, too! I’ve been duped by a scam site when in a rush. They often use very good facsimiles of an authentic, valid site. What they will do is sell you commonplace information about the process, rather than actually completing a transaction like updating your driver’s license for a change of address. Make sure the extension is .gov for these sites!

1 votes

Dann A

I’ve heard about both of those being used for misleading sites like the ones I’ve listed above. You’re exactly right—the websites look a lot like the real ones, and they make it seem like you’re paying for a renewal, but they really sell guides or a proofreading services. Watching out for .gov extensions is one really good way to protect yourself!

0 votes
Reply

Ajarn D

This is really very good info to know and share with others. Thanks a lot!

0 votes

Dann A

Glad you found it useful, Ajarn. Thanks for reading!

0 votes
Reply

Giorgio

After having read what above, I have what to me seems an interesting question:

Considering the “nature” of those (and others) kind of websites and that it would be easy to asses and filter them what could be the responsability of Google in accepting to publish their ads?

0 votes

Dann A

That’s an interesting thought, Giorgio. However, I think that Google has no responsibility in this case for publishing their ads. If they were SCAM sites, instead of just misleading ones, then I would be totally in favour of Google trying to block their ads. However, because they’re not doing anything illegal, I don’t think there’s anything that can be done on the search engine / ISP front. Because they have disclaimers on their sites, they can claim that they aren’t trying to mislead, and that people just aren’t paying attention.

I think it comes down to how closely you think Google or another agency should be policing content and whether or not they should be able to make judgments on the “nature” of a site. In general, I think most people are going to be against that.

What do you think?

0 votes
Reply

Saikat B

Read this recently — Google blocks copycat passport, driving licence and European Health Insurance Card websites |Link

0 votes

Dann A

Interesting! I’ll have to watch out for more articles on this topic. People seem pretty unhappy about these issues, so maybe we’ll actually see some more search engine policing in the near future.

Thanks for the link!

0 votes

Saikat B

I would say this article was well-timed :)

0 votes
Reply

Jtstar

The problem is, Google and the other “Search Engines” are always happy to take their money for paid ads, which puts them at the top of the search anyway. Don’t you think Google et al has a responsibility to the consumer not to be misled, just as much as they do not to allow scams. Someone has to police them, otherwise it’s just the “wild, wild, west,” to coin a phrase.

1 votes

Dann A

Well, according to the article that Saikat posted above, it looks like they are taking some responsibility for these sites. I don’t know how much this will continue or how long it will last, but it seems to be a good step toward a slightly less wild and unpoliced internet. We’ll see. As you pointed out, there’s a lot of money involved in search engine ad placements, so Google and others have a pretty good incentive to let them hang around.

Thanks for commenting!

0 votes
Reply

Don

Here’s one that caught me. It looked official

http://www.us-immigration.com/index.html

0 votes

Dann A

That’s definitely a misleading one! Good catch, Don, and thanks for sharing.

0 votes
Reply

Trio

Great post Dann,

What is even worse, sites like schengenvisa.cc have gained a lot of backlinks from trusted sources like cnn.com, europa.eu, etc.

And they do have also another spammy site http://www.eurovisa.info/

I do not know how they are still in the 1st place in Google results?

0 votes

Dann A

I hadn’t seen eurovisa.info . . . that company is all over the place! The site looks really legit, and their guide might even be okay, which is why I would guess that they get links from other sites. However, even if it IS a good guide (which I don’t know), it’s still a misleading site.

They’ve probably done a lot of work on SEO and trying to get back links from those sites to stay high in the Google rankings. Too bad there isn’t a way to vote them out, huh?

Glad you liked the article!

Your comment