CYBER detectives based in North Yorkshire are leading the way in a national campaign to shut down scam websites which have defrauded thousands of people and exposed many to identity theft.

Fraudsters set up copycat websites, masquerading as official government sites, which include passport renewal, driving test booking, car tax discs and customs.

They have proved so convincing that many have ended up paying for services which would ordinarily be cheaper or free through official channels.They’ve also left many open to fraud and identity theft.

Last year there were more than 5,000 complaints to the Citizens Advice Bureau and 700 to the Advertising Standards Authority about the sites.

Detectives from the National Trading Standards eCrime Team, which is run through North Yorkshire County Council, led the way in investigating the cons - helping shut down 25 scam sites and leading to the arrest of five people across the country.

National Crime coordinator Mike Andrews, who is based in Northallerton, said: "We are determined to crack down on companies and websites that set out to confuse and mislead consumers.

"I am pleased that the National Trading Standards eCrime Team has been at the forefront of tackling the problem of copycat websites and hope this sends out a clear message that this sort of activity will not be tolerated."

The team have helped create a web campaign working with celebrity money saving expert Martin Lewis, who voiced a video warning consumers to be on their guard.

Mr Lewis said: “I’ve lost count of the number of people who contact me upset and want to know how to get their cash back. Generally that’s very difficult, which is why you need to be tooled up in advance with the knowledge National Trading Standards is putting out. If you want a Government service, go through, don’t use search engines.”

The team has also been working with search engines including Google and Bing to remove advertisements for the sites, which often use addresses including ‘govuk’ or ‘directgov’ to make them appear official.”

Lord Toby Harris, chair of the National Trading Standards Board said:” We are making it as difficult as possible for these online hoaxers to operate.

“We urge you to avoid unofficial websites which could leave you out-of-pocket or at risk of identity theft. Only use the GOV.UK website to find government services."

Anyone encountering copycat websites should report them to the Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 0345-4040-506.