People are being misled into paying more for common travel documents than needed due to copycat adverts running rife on search engines, Which? has warned.
The consumer group looked into ads for health cards, driving licences and visas which can appear in prime spots along the top of popular sites including Google and Bing, above official channels.
Among them were 18 ads overcharging users for services that are available for free.
Brexit and traveller confusion is also being exploited, with six results for the Global Health Insurance Card (Ghic) on Google attempting to charge at least £30 each, even though it is available for free through the NHS.
Another advert even proposed breaking the law by offering a licence to drive in Spain without a driver’s test, Which? said.
When contacted by a researcher posing as a motorist banned from driving in the UK, a respondent said they had contacts in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) who could wipe the ban and get a new, clean driver’s licence, for £685 (800 euro).
There is no evidence that the respondent had any contacts in the DVLA and the advert eventually disappeared after it was reported to the agency.
Other copycat ads that were reported directly to Google changed to show official websites for one day, but six weeks later there were 14 new copycat ads in their place, Which? claims.
“Copycat ads have been a problem for years, so it is concerning to see them still appearing at the top of search results – often ahead of the official website – and charging unnecessary fees,” said Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert.
“Search engines must take more responsibility for the ads that appear and verify the business before misleading ads are published in the first place.
“In the meantime, unfortunately it is on us to keep an eye out for copycat ads.
“If trying to renew a driver’s licence, get a health card or apply for a visa, make sure you are using the official website so you aren’t left footing any unnecessary bills.”
A separate Which? investigation into DVLA copycat ads for drivers’ licence renewals found that almost three quarters (73%) of the most common searches for them return ads for third-party websites charging £50 to £100 – seven times the official fee – to “check” and renew licences.
The consumer group claims eight third-party ads appeared on a single search on Bing for “how to renew a driving licence”, all charging at least double the DVLA rate for “checking” and renewal.
Meanwhile on Google, eight ads appeared for the search “renew driving licence at 70”.
All adverts dominated top search results and charged £50 for renewal for those aged over 70 – even though this is free from the DVLA.
Google responded to the findings, saying: “We have strict policies that govern the types of ads and advertisers we allow on our platforms.
“We only allow Governments or their delegated providers to advertise for official documents or services.
“When ads breach our policies we take action to remove them.”
A spokesperson for Bing-owner Microsoft said: “As our policies clearly state, advertisers who promote products and services must ensure they comply with all applicable local laws and regulatory requirements.
“We encourage people to report possible deceptive or fraudulent ads they may be seeing so we can review and take action as appropriate.”