4 Websites That Look Official But Will Take Your Money

Ads by Google

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

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

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.

Ads by Google

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

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-home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

europe-visa-search

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.

Join live MakeUseOf Groups on Grouvi App Join live Groups on Grouvi
Web for Kids
Web for Kids
19 Members
Deep Web Communities
Deep Web Communities
31 Members
Awesome Websites
Awesome Websites
62 Members
Best Music Services
Best Music Services
24 Members
Ads by Google
Comments (33)
  • 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?

    • 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!

  • Don

    Here’s one that caught me. It looked official

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

    • Dann A

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

  • 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.

    • 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!

  • Saikat B

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

    • 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!

    • Saikat B

      I would say this article was well-timed :)

  • 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?

    • 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?

Load 10 more
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.