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/

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