A WARNING has been issued to Stockton residents to be vigilant when applying for official documents online following a sharp rise in the number of complaints.

Trading Standards officers from Stockton Borough Council say there has been a big increase in cases of copycat website scams.

Website experts copy Government websites for services like tax returns, passport renewals and various council services.

The operators of the 'copycat' site do actually provide the stated service but at a massively inflated charge and for doing very little work.

All the sites investigated by Stockton Council’s trading standards do state somewhere on the front page that they are not official and will charge a service fee - for processing the application and forwarding it on to the official body on the customer’s behalf.

Despite this, trading standards officers say warning statements can be easily overlooked especially when some of the sites mimic the official websites in their layout and design.

The extra fees charged by these websites vary but can be hundreds of pounds more than the service offered by the official site. One resident was charged £141.50 for renewing a passport online on a copycat site where the cost on the official site is £72.50.

Catherine Poppleton from Hartburn, Stockton recently applied for a fishing licence online. The website she used turned out to be copycat site which mimicked the style and design of the Environment Agency’s official site. She paid £47 for the licence which should have cost £27.

Ms Poppleton said: “I was really annoyed when I realised what had happened and that I had been taken in. The copycat website was very clever as it looked like the official site.”

Anyone who feels that they have been misled by a copycat site can report the matter to the Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 08454 04 05 06 or online at www.adviceguide.org.uk