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February 14, 2018
Taxpayers filling in last-minute self-assessment forms online are paying hundreds of pounds to a “copycat” website that, it is claimed, lures them into thinking they are on the official HM Revenue & Customs site but which charges them up to £1,000.
In recent days angry readers have contacted us after using taxreturngateway.com, which pays Google to appear top in searches for “self assessment” and “tax return”. The link to the official HMRC website appears further down the page.“Having googled ‘Inland Revenue’, the top entry was for ‘Tax Return Gateway’ and I clicked on that and entered the necessary codes and information. At the end I was told that I owed £230 and I should pay £150 now,” one reader said.
“Like an idiot I did so, and then I realised I had not been filling in an Inland Revenue form but a form for one of these websites that purport to do a service for you, which you can do yourself.”
Another reader emailed to say: “It’s quite clever really as 95% of the pages you view are official HMRC forms so when they ask you for the money at the end you’re fairly well hypnotised into thinking it’s for the Inland Revenue in advance of the tax bill.
“If I know two (now three) people within 50 yards of me that have been affected, Lord knows how many there are across the country!” He has since complained to the Advertising Standards Authority and to Google, “but I suspect the response will be far too late for most people.”
There are around 2.8m self-assessment forms still to be filed by the 31 January deadline, but HMRC said it could not close down the copycat sites or match the large amounts of money the sites pay to come top of searches.
An HMRC spokesman said: “It costs nothing to file a tax return. Whilst people are entirely free to employ a tax return agent, HMRC does not sanction or in any way approve such sites, and we will take firm action against any websites that suggest otherwise.
“People should steer clear of third-party websites unless they are clear about what they are getting themselves in to and what fees they are going to be charged.”
The only address for Tax Return Gateway and its parent company, Who4 Ltd, is in Clerkenwell, London, but is simply a mail forwarding address. The website has no telephone number and only gives an “info” email address. The Guardian asked how many customers have used the site, why it was charging for a service that could be found for free, and if it would offer refunds, but we did not receive a reply.
The website appears to conform to Google’s rules that require sites to tell viewers they are not the official site and that the service is available for free elsewhere. Below a large text banner that says “Complete Your Self Assessment Tax Return Online” and a button that pushes people to “Submit your tax assessment online now” there is an italicised message which says in smaller text: “We are not connected to or affiliated with HMRC, DWP or any other official government body. We offer a bespoke, value for money, tax return assistance service for which we levy a charge.”
Further down the page it also carries a “Why use our services” checklist, comparing itself to HMRC, and declares that it is a private company, not an official body. So why do so many people believe they are in the HMRC site?
A reader who contacted us on Thursday wrote: “It’s hard to believe that anyone who has followed the Saturday Consumer Champions column in the Guardian for years could do the foolish thing that I did yesterday. I submitted a self-assessment on the above website thinking throughout that I was on an HMRC short-cut site. There was no excuse for this, as I am used to the official website, but I think I was misled by ‘Gateway’, which is used by HMRC.”
The reader said he had paid £500 on completing the form. “On reflection, the wording was grossly misleading, indicating that the actual balance of tax due could be more or less than this amount … I am left with the uneasy feeling that this company has all my personal details, income sources etc. The final irony is that when I submitted my self-assessment form on the official site this morning, my tax underpayment was £2.20!”
The value of the website’s additional services as “tax agents” is unconvincing, say accountants. “I don’t see how they can check for errors if they don’t know your situation,” says Richard Mannion from accountants Smith & Williamson. “Anyway, filing your return can be very straightforward online and you don’t need a tax agent.”
In a statement, a Google spokesperson said: “We have a strict set of policies which govern what types of ads appear on Google. If we learn that an advertiser is breaching those policies, we move swiftly to take action. We are working closely with Government Digital Services to ensure that ads are not misleading and offer real value.”