Tax TimeGetty Images/Vetta

With the deadline for submitting an online tax return fast approaching, taxpayers are being warned to steer clear of copycat websites that charge for what should be a free service.

Google 'tax return' or 'congestion charge', for example, and the site topping the list won't be the official one; instead, it's a company offering to process applications in return for a fee. Frequently, users fail to realise that they are paying over the odds until it's too late.



Unfortunately, there's nothing illegal about acting as a middleman in this way, with many such websites claiming that they are providing a valuable service by checking applications.

"The major concern from complainants is that they feel misled into thinking that this is the official provider, and in some cases they've paid a lot more," says an Advertising Standards Authority spokesperson.

What is illegal is giving the impression that an independent website is the official one. "Essentially, the rule is that ads should not be misleading," says the spokesperson. "If there's nothing to say 'we're not the official provider', then that's not acceptable. And if that statement is tucked away, it would obviously be problematic."

The ASA has the power to name and shame companies that refuse to comply, and can place sponsored ads on their websites highlighting the fact that they are not the official site. As a last resort, it can refer cases to the Trading Standards Institute, which has the power to impose fines.

Last week, it took action against one site, paylondoncongestion.co.uk, ordering the London congestion charge site to make it clearer that it is not affiliated with Transport for London, and to make its fees clear before the point at which users have to to enter their personal details.

In November, the question of copycat websites was raised in the Lords by Lord Brabazon of Tara, with Lord Mawhinney and the Earl of Shrewsbury admitting they'd fallen for such websites themselves. The government claims it's doing everything possible to limit abuse, including talking to Google about the positioning of such sites in search results.

In the meantime, taxpayers are advised to head straight for the official HMRC site at http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/. For the London Congestion Charge, the official site is here; HM Passport Office is here; and the DVLA is here.