I’ve been caught out by copycat website “British Passport Services”

UPDATE:

Since I first posted this I have had my day in court and I won! Details here: My glorious day in court with “Passport Profiteer” Richard Howard from copycat website British Passport Services.

***

I apologise in advance. This one might get a bit rant-y.

I consider myself pretty tech savvy… I configure software for a living. I built this website. So it would be wrong to assume that you have to be a fool or rubbish with computers to get caught by a copycat website. It can happen to anyone. This is my story. This is also a plea for support.

If you’ve been caught too please join us (details at the bottom of this post)

I needed to renew my passport in a hurry between business trips so I booked an appointment to go into Peterborough Passport office and use their “Premium Service” or “Fast-track Service” so that I could get a guaranteed fast turnaround (Note: the Fast-track service costs £128. That will be important later). Also, given that this was in mid-late September, I was vaguely aware of some issues with passport office privatisation and delays so I wanted to leave the passport office with my new passport in my hand, rather than trust them to send it to me in the post.

I Googled some collection of the words “Britsh”, “Passport”, “Peterborough”, “Premium” and “Service” and the British Passport Services website ranked highest – so I trusted Google and clicked the link. Honest mistake.

I won’t include a link here because I certainly do not want to do anything for their search ranking, but this is their homepage:

BritishPassportServices1

Before we go any further, I’d like to explain that I did this in a 5 spare minutes at work before a meeting as I thought it would be a quick job. So yes – I did it in a hurry. And yes – I should have been more careful. And yes – I should have noticed the tiny “No government Affiliation” hint top left. And yes – I should have read the small print much lower down the page, where the crucial information was hidden between tonnes of screenjunk… But aren’t we all guilty of rushing through on-line sales sometimes. And who actually reads the Ts and Cs these days? Especially on (what I thought to be) the official website for booking passport appointments.

Anyway.

So this page looks a bit gaudy but I knew there was some business around the passport service being privatised (and doing badly) so I wasn’t surprised it wasn’t the best of websites. I clicked the “Need an appointment today?” link and ended up here:

BritishPassportServices2

(Please, whatever you do, please do not agree to these T’s and C’s!!!!!)

Anyway – I had 5 minutes – so:

Next.. Next… Next… Enter details… Pick a date for your appointment… Next… Next… Cost £117, that’s roughly what I remembered from earlier… Enter credit card details… Next… Error…

I clicked “Purchase” or “Buy now” or whatever the button was called and I got some computer error? I didn’t look carefully. That’s annoying. Obviously the purchase hadn’t worked? It was time for my meeting. I would have to revisit this later.

An hour later I returned from my meeting. I had two emails, one confirming my appointment. (I received it almost immediately after booking. It must have been automated.) And another long email (also clearly automated) saying that I needed to pay my invoice within three days. That’s funny? I don’t remember agreeing to that?

A little more Googling, now I’m suspicious, and I work out my mistake. I should have booked directly through the passport office. (Annoyingly, that’s what I was trying to do!) But no worries – the cost was about the same. I’ll just call the passport office to be sure.

WHAT?

So the nice person in the passport office tells me I do indeed have an appointment, but it does not include the passport fee of £128. I would have to pay that on the day. It all sinks in. I’ve been scammed. I cancelled the appointment booked by British Passport “Services” and booked my own. It was much easier than using their website. The lady at the passport office warned me it sounded like a scam, I shouldn’t pay them and I should report them. (I wish I had that in writing).

So what was the £117 pounds for? Well here is a list of the services they emailed me to tell me they were providing:

  • Using their online booking form (which broke): £10
  • Their time booking the appointment (automated): £10
  • Membership of queue jumping website (I didn’t use it): £20
  • They sent me a form to hand in at the post office: £5
  • Passport form checking service (I did not use it): £8.75
  • Emergency Travel Document Card (I don’t even understand this): £10
  • 30 minute Passport advisor consultation (He did ring, despite me cancelling in advance, I told him it was cancelled, he hung up): £14.25
  • SMS, email and letter confirmation of appointment (they confirmed the booking): £10
  • Directions to the passport office (yes, they emailed me Google directions): £10
  • A bunch of other services at no charge (my favourite was the foreign language one fr people who don’t speak English, written in English, hidden in the middle of a massive English email.)

Well if that isn’t £117 well spent I’m not sure what is. (Also – they need to buy a calculator?)

So I called British Passport Services and explained the honest mistake and that obviously I would not be paying. The man on the end of the phone at this point got very angry. He told me the appointment was already booked and that I had already received some services and that I had to pay. I explained that their website had broken on me, that I never agreed to be invoiced and that I had cancelled his appointment and that I would not use any of his services. I also told him to cancel any further services.

He told me he could only cancel the remaining services If I paid £60ish pounds there and then for the services that had already been carried out. He got very angry and abusive. Obviously I told him that I was never going to pay him and that any further services his organisation provide would be in the full knowledge that I did not want these services and that I wished to cancel. He told me that in order to cancel I had to text some number. I told him that I would not do that (I had just been the victim of a text scam that cost me £3 per junk text and I was not getting good feelings about British Passport Services!) I told him that if he continued to hound me I would report him.

Shortly afterwards I received another email demanding the full payment of £117. I replied as follow:

Thank you for your email.

I found your website misleading. I did not fully understand the product I was purchasing. I have contacted you to inform you of my mistake by phone and email within an hour.
I was under the belief that your price included the passport. It was not until I called the passport office that they told me they would still expect me to pay the full price for the passport on top of your fee.
I explained within an hour of the mistake and have cancelled the appointment. I will not be paying your fee. I believe that your website was in contravention of the clear terms set out here.
If you persist in chasing the fee I will follow the official HM.GOV guidance here:
I consider the matter closed.
And I considered the matter closed.

British Passport Services did not. They continued to hound me. At this point I just ignored them. A guy even called me few weeks later to provide the consultation. It lasted less than a minute. I told him that I had already cancelled the appointment both by phone and email and that I did not wish to speak to him.

On Christmas Eve I received a recorded delivery “Final payment request”. They threatened court action if I ignored it.

Naturally, at this point I’m getting a bit nervous. I have never paid a bill late in my life and, when speaking to a mortgage advisor last year, I was told I had the highest possible credit rating. When I don’t pay a bill it is not because I can’t afford it, because I’m being deceitful or because I forgot. I don’t wan to ruin many years of financial diligence by ruining my credit score over this? I also don’t want to end up paying solicitors fees. I turned to Google:

http://conversation.which.co.uk/money/copycat-websites-tax-returns-passport-driving-licence-application/

I read the comments. Hundreds of people reporting the same company in the same boat. They’ve all been advised not to pay. I spoke to a few people – I was advised not to pay. I reported British Passport Services to every watchdog I could think of and sent them one more email:

Dear British Passport Services,

I have received your Formal Notice of Intended Court Action and have sought out my own legal advice. I have been informed that I do not need to worry and that I should not pay you since you are clearly a copycat website.
What’s more, I have already contacted Watchdog, the ASA and also the FCA. I shall also contact Citizens Advice as soon as they open tomorrow and through them I intend to contact Trading Standards.
I explained to you less than 2 hours after I was tricked on your site that if you chose to pursue this I would approach the relevant authorities and that is what I am doing now.
I will not be paying this bill, not because I cannot afford it or because I forgot about it but because it is wrong and I refuse to reward you for illegal and immoral actions that serve no purpose to society. By paying you I would be encouraging you to continue to trick and bully innocent people into paying you money.
If you really believe that you are in the right you will have to take me to court.
Yours sincerely,
Alex Yates

Well guess what?

I’ve just received a very judicial claims form from Money Claim Online which lists me as the ‘defendant’. They point out that in the Ts and Cs it said I agreed to waive my 14 day cooling off period. It also said I agreed to pay in full within 3 working days. It also said that in order to cancel I had to email some different email address, something the guy neglected to tell me over the phone.

I still intend to fight this. Not necessarily because I think I will win or because I think I will get out of paying £117 (I’ll probably end up paying more) or because I’ll save my credit rating (it will probably end up being hurt more) but because it is the right thing to do. I don’t want to let this website get away with bullying people into paying them money. It’s wrong and if I just pay up I’ll be encouraging them to do the same thing to many other people. It also looks from their website like they specifically target people from foreign countries or people who don’t speak English, who may be more vulnerable.

What to do if you have been scammed too.

Don’t ignore any court letters. As far as I am aware, the main risk of getting a poor credit rating is if you ignore these papers and the courts judge against you as a result. You should either fight it or pay up but don’t ignore it. And I would strongly urge you to fight it – but I’m no lawyer.

Before choosing whether to fight or pay you should contact the LegalBeagles discussion thread. They are really doing great work to fight BPS and they are providing free legal advice to dozens of people in the same position as you and me. They have been very good with me and other people I’ve talked to.

If you would like to you can also join the growing community of BPS victims and support the fight against BPS by any of the following methods:

Leave a comment below to share your experiences.

Email me privately and directly (I’ve created a new email address specifically for this because, you know, spam): alex.vs.bps@gmail.com

Join the community on the Which? website where people are sharing their experiences. (33 unique anonymous contributors who have also been duped by BPS. 27 of which in the last two months).

Sign this petition started by Mark Dilliway MBE, a retired police officer who has worked with fraudulent websites before and has also been caught out by BPS.

Finally, since I believe there may be many other communities out there of BPS victims that I don’t yet know about, I’ve created a facebook group here. If you are a victim please join it. The purpose of this facebook group is not a general discussion thread – there are many of those already. This group is for:

1. Sharing statements so that we can stand together in court and demonstrate that other real (non-anonymous) people are experiencing the same issues.

2. Provide an index of all the other disparate groups of people who are fighting the same battle. Do you know about groups other than the ones I’ve mentioned? Let us know. Together we are strong. Divided we fall. Etc…

Oh, and it goes without saying… if you are a victim too you should report this company to Action Fraud, the ASA, Trading Standards, Citizens Advice, BBC Watchdog, your local MP and any other body you can think of.

EDIT: BPS featured on BBC!

BPS have just been featured on the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b053c3p8

EDIT: BPS victims are beating BPS in court!

And they are being awarded around £100 which BPS has to pay them: http://legalbeagles.info/passport-profiteer-loses-in-court-over-copycat-website-fee-claims/

  25 comments for “I’ve been caught out by copycat website “British Passport Services”

  1. February 3, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    Hi Alex, Sorry to hear you have been caught out by this firm. I believe you’re already aware of the legalbeagles.info thread about UK Support & Service, but you would be very welcome to join in the campaign and conversation over there. We’re currently obtaining counsel opinion on defending court claims from BPS (and getting refunds and trying to get the regulators/gov/homeoffice/trading standards (anyone!!) to do something. And if you need any support dealing with the court claim just give me a shout (Amethyst) – you do need to put in your acknowledgment of service within 14 days of receipt then you’ll have a month from the issue date to decide whether to defend or not.
    Best regards
    Sharon
    legalbeagles.info

    • Martin
      February 19, 2015 at 11:51 am

      I have just received court documents after threats from British Passport Services for over 6 months . I note your helpful comments but seek some advice on how to defend this scam –
      What should I do now ? Incensed that this company continue to harass people

      • Alex Yates
        February 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm

        Hi Martin,

        Thanks for commenting. I’m not a lawyer so I’m not qualified to give legal advice and I can only really share my experiences and what I have been told by a solicitor. I encourage you to check any insurance policies you may have through your home insurance, bank/credit cards or employment packages etc and try to speak to a qualified solicitor yourself. I asked someone in the HR team at my company and they told me about a legal helpline I was entitled to use as part of my benefits package – which has been extremely helpful.

        One thing that the solicitor told me that I found very helpful was that the small claims court is not like a criminal court. It’s intended for settling disputes over small sums of money. You won’t get a criminal record and you won’t get a poor credit rating (as long as you pay if you loose). Also, BPS cannot charge you for legal fees. The best they can get is a few percent for interest on the money owed – so don’t be afraid of the bill inflating significantly from whatever they claim you owe them. What I’m saying is that, as I understand it, you don’t have a lot to loose by fighting it. But as I said before – I’m no lawyer and you should verify this with your own legal advice.

        With regards how to fight it, you might want to think about whether you feel the services were advertised fairly. Do you feel they were well explained? In my view they have tried to include all the right information but make it as easy as possible for people to make mistakes, and I feel this is demonstrated by the number of people who have been tricked by them.

        Also, do you feel that their contract terms were unreasonable? There are laws about unreasonable contract terms. I’m not a solicitor so I won’t give you any more advice than that.

        Finally, with regards the 14 day cooling off period, I’m not sure how legal that is. I’ve heard people say that it is illegal. I’ve also heard people say that while it is legal to waive rights in contracts, you still have a right to cool off from the contract, hence cooling off from whatever rights you have waived within that contract, hence it is impossible to waive your 14 day cooling off rights. Then again, I’m not a lawyer, so you might want to explore that for yourself with a qualified lawyer.

        Make sure you have kept a record of the facts of your case and any evidence around whether you feel you cancelled the contract or not. In my case they continued to provide “services” after I had very clearly told them I did not wish to receive any more services and that I wanted to cancel my contract.

        Finally, if you feel that BPS are acting fraudulently, please report them to all the relevant authorities listed in my post.

        My guess is that they are still bluffing and that they won’t bother turning up in court. With all the people that I’ve seen who are receiving letters I’m yet to see a single one actually report on an actual visit to a courtroom. But I might be wrong?

        Good luck Martin, and please do let us know how it all turns out.

  2. February 4, 2015 at 6:24 pm

    A major problem with our small claims court / county court / “Money Claim Online” system is that people having money demanded from them wrongly are dis-empowered as they become the defendant.

    I would like reform of the system so those money is being demanded from can take action and obtain a judgement. Currently our legal system insists that you are actually owed money before you can take a county court action.

    One way of turning the tables in this kind of situation is to offer to pay the bill making the offer in the form of a cheque sent along with a formal “letter before action” making clear your intent to immediately seek repayment of the money via the county court if the company pays in the cheque.

    I’ve suggested this approach previously in relation to erroneous Cambridge City Council demands for council tax:

    http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/students-harrassed-council-tax.html

  3. Peter Carpenter
    February 4, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    To be objective based on the screen shot it you’ve uploaded the article makes it look pretty clear that this website is not a government website. Its a shame that you made a mistake but I can’t see how that alone can be used as a defense if it goes to court. Furthermore I’d be careful as if the company that’s suing you comes across this article they could try and use it as an “admission” that you admit liability and so request judgement is made in their favor. Best get CAB or legal advice if you’re planning to defend this. There’s always an angle. I personally just dont think that the sympathy card is the best argument to use.

    • Alex Yates
      February 4, 2015 at 7:40 pm

      Thanks everyone for your support.

      I’ve spoken to a lawyer today and I still plan to fight it. The worst case scenario is that I go to the civil court and lose and have to pay the bill. They can’t charge me for legal fees as its a civil matter. I won’t get a criminal record or get a poor credit rating so long as I pay promptly should I lose – which is not a problem.

      I won’t fight it by telling anything other than the truth – so the way I see it there is no point in me keeping the truth to myself. I believe in openness and honesty. I will show these screenshots, and yes, I’ll concede that the website does have all the right information and that I missed it.

      However, I plan to demonstrate that I am not alone. I plan to demonstrate that British Passport Services is aware that many people are making the same mistake as me and that they are doing nothing about it. Furthermore, rather than taking reasonable steps to ensure people aren’t mistaken in the future they consistently hound people who have made the same mistake as me in the full knowledge that these people never wished to receive the services in the first place. I will assert that the website deliberately does just enough to, in their opinion, satisfy the law while at the same time trying their hardest to trick many people into making the same mistake.

      I believe I can do that – but in order to do that I need more people to contact me and make statements to support my case. I’ve already had several people contact me with statements to that end but the more I get the better.

      Also, if you are in a similar position please let me know and I’ll happily testify to support your case – and now I know other people who will too.

      • Matthew De'Ath
        February 10, 2015 at 12:17 pm

        I am currently looking at fighting a claim myself about to fill in the “Money Claim Online”. Will try to help in anyway I can.

        • Anna
          May 9, 2015 at 2:06 pm

          Hi Matthew this has also happened to me what is the first thing I need to do. I haven’t paid them the £117 and I’ve cancelled the service but I’m still being charged as they made an appointment for me next Saturday! Do I have to pay them or wait untill they take me to court I can’t believe they are allowed to do this and get away with it!! Thanks

      • Anna
        May 9, 2015 at 1:41 pm

        Hi this has happened to me to. I was misled into using this service when trying to apply for a first time passport for my daughter. I haven’t paid the £117 and unsure of what to do next. I rang to cancel the service but they have made me an appointment for this Saturday but there saying it’s to late I still have to pay them. I have seven days to pay but I want to fight this. Should I pay the money first and then fight it or refuse to pay the money and wait untill he takes me to court? Any help would be great I find it all so confusing!! I can’t believe what is happening is legal. I thought before putting in your card details you have a right to cancel as I hadnt paid for the service am I wrong in thinking this?

        • Alex Yates
          May 9, 2015 at 7:25 pm

          Hi Anna, check out my latest post. And then talk to legal beagles. They are great people and they really helped me out.

          They’ll also be able to give you better advice than me.

  4. Amy
    February 6, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Pains me to say say it but I too, have been scammed.

    It’s not the money, I have it, but it’s the principle. I was tricked like yourself into this and had absolutely no way on earth of backing out. Once my details and signature was processed, I had sold my soul. I now am being summoned to court and am happy to do whatever it takes to stand up and fight for this. Count me in.

  5. Ivan Barker
    February 7, 2015 at 11:00 am

    Hi Alex I’ve just joined your Facebook group….I’m in exactly the same boat as yourself mate….i contacted the court to acknowledge the letter that I received and informed them of my intention to defend myself…they’ve contacted me again suggesting that I mediate with BPS. …I’m so bored of this Richard Howard character ivanidea2001@yahoo.co.uk

  6. Peter
    February 12, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    Guys. I have been tricked the same way and it seems no one wants to help us! I have complained to every legal body including the police to no avail. We need to get a huge group together and shut these monsters down. Several years ago a friend of mine purchased http://www.asdadirect.co.uk and within hours he had a threat of litigation so how can a domain name with the words British Passport Services be allowed. This company is obviously passing off and hoping to trick people into believing they are the official body- just look at the pictures on their website.
    I am a webdesigner and i know that statistics show that almost 90% of people scan websites, not read them so a quick flash of their homepage says what they plan it to pass off as. Like Adam, i am a web designer with years of experience and I was conned.
    The HM Passport office is NOT interested and this company will continue trading and ripping people off.
    Please, please if you have been a victim let me know, lets group together and i will take the petition to London personally to see some action taken.

    • Anna
      May 9, 2015 at 2:45 pm

      I have been a victim and I’d like to help put a stop to this. Anything I can do to help please let me know.

  7. February 26, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    Hi yes I too have been scammed to the sum of £117.00 I cancelled the appointment straight away but was informed the work had already been carried out so no refund would be given,
    I found I paid for services I never received or requested, and I had weavered my rights to a cooling off period, im angry and frustrated that a company is allowed to get away with this I work hard for my money and feel I may have well put it in the binand set fire to it

  8. Sharon
    March 1, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Hi Alex, Hope you’re doing okay – did you hear the radio on Friday ( Radio 4 You & Yours ) or see the Mail on Sunday article today ?

    • Alex Yates
      March 2, 2015 at 6:49 pm

      Hi Sharon,

      Thanks, I think I may have missed a call unfortunately but it looks like they created a good program anyway and the article looks great!

      Thanks for all your support.

      Alex

  9. Chad
    April 16, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    British passports have issued me with court papers I will fight this all the way
    They scammed me and charged for services they couldn’t possibly do before the appointment they made ,

  10. Alex Yates
    April 26, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    If you have heard already – one of BPS’s victims went to court in the last few days and won. BPS did not attend and the judge talked through the case with the defendant and not only sided with them but awarded £85 compensation.

    To the knowledge of the good people at legalbeagles this is the first case that actually went to court.

    To read more hit the legalbeagles forum and look for post numbers in the region of #1275 (ish).

  11. Claire curtis
    September 15, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    My son has just fallen victim to the site that charges you £20 for a free EHIC card. I’m so angry.

  12. Dayle Gibson
    September 24, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Mr Yates, I watched your case on Ripoff Britain and when I heard about the website, I blocked it with two extensions that I have on Chrome so it will be blocked if I go on it and it will be hidden from my search results, I did not enter any details on the website because I copied the link and added it to the block list before clicking on it to see if the blocking extenstion was working,, so if they do contact me which would be very unlikely, I can just say that I never entered any details on the website

  13. Darren O'Gorman
    December 25, 2015 at 5:31 am

    I fell in the trap, apologies if this is a bit long ended. I needed a passport urgently and decided to opt for BPS. I filled in the online application on a Monday pressed send and within seconds received a text message and email confirming an appointment, and I had three days to make the payment. There was an ‘error’ with the online payment so I paid over the counter at the bank on the Tuesday, £98.50. I received a number of texts and emails claiming they had not received payment… After threatening to cancel all dealings with BPS, alas, I received an email on the Friday for an appointment for the following Monday, then I received another email the same day for another appointment at a different time on the following Monday THEN I received ANOTHER email on Friday for an appointment on the Wednesday (an appointment I could of only attended using a time machine, as Wednesday is before Friday, in the same week) and this is the best bit, the email clearly states payment was received on the Tuesday (BPS said they hadn’t received any payment). So in a nutshell, they sent me three different appointment for three different times one of which was two days prior to receiving the email. BPS claim they fulfilled their contract by providing me with an appointment. In the end I had lost total faith and trust in them and ended up using an alternative service provider at a cost of £90.00. Oh, and when I told BPS about the stress and anxiety they had caused me during the process they replied with ‘ send us a copy of your doctors note to say you’re stressed’
    Any advice on claiming a refund of the £98.50 would be appreciated
    Thanks

    • Alex Yates
      December 25, 2015 at 8:26 am

      Hi Darren,

      Thanks for sharing. These guys are awful. Im sorry to hear you are out of pocket.

      My best advice is to contact Sharon Coleman at LegalBeagles. (She was the first to comment on this post and has been amazingly supportive to me and many others. Without her and her team I don’t know if I would have won my case.)

      Trading Standards are currently putting together a criminal case against BPS. I can put you in touch with the person who is leading that if you send me an email to alex.vs.bps@gmail.com. I can also give you Sharon’s email but I won’t post someone else’s email publicly.

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