Renewing your EHIC card is free via the NHS website. But if you type ‘renew my EHIC card’ into Google, among the top results you will find a seemingly official site called ‘ehic.co.uk’ which charges you a hefty £35 for the service. There is another called ‘e111.org.uk’ which charges £19.95.
There used to be similar sites for passport and driver’s license renewal too, but they were taken down a couple of years ago. The convincing websites, otherwise known as ‘copycat websites’ or ‘shyster websites’ charge people for a service which is free through the tax-funded NHS. Somehow, the EHIC copycat website has managed to slip through the net and is very much alive and thriving. TechRound investigated this further…
Looks legit, huh?
Who Runs the EHIC Renewal Copycat Sites?
The e111.org.uk site is run by a company called SEO 1 Ltd, a seemingly one-person operation currently registered to Andrew Colin Wallace.
SEO 1 Ltd was incorporated in 2011 and Wallace allegedly owns more than 75% of the company’s shares. According to publicly-accessible details on the site companiesintheuk, the company’s current assets stand at £320.48k, with £184.58k in the bank.
SEO 1 Ltd’s assets
SEO 1 Ltd have moved their offices to different parts of the country on various occasions. Their previous address in Bolton is listed as an estate agent’s called Courtneys Independent Ltd. The company moved at the end of July 2020 and their current registered address is in an idyllic town called Windermere in the Lake District, sandwiched between a café and a dry cleaners.
The company comes under the category of ‘other information technology and computed service activities.’
The ehic.co.uk site claims to be a ‘replacement of the old e111’ and if you go to the e111.org.uk site (which is still active), you will find Mr Wallace’s Windermere address at the bottom of the page.
However, the new ehic.co.uk site is actually registered under a different company, the Application Advice Service UK, owned by Louise Quick. This company’s registered address is in London’s West End. If you call the company’s phone number, there is no one to speak to and each of the options listed in the automated message just refer you to their website.
The Dark Side of SEO?
These companies ensure their websites feature high on search engine results even though they are not the official or even the most widely-used ones. If you search something along the lines of ‘renew EHIC card’ on Google, ehic.co.uk and e111.org.uk will often feature just after the nhs.uk or gov.uk sites and sometimes right at the top under the guise of an ‘ad’, which appears in small print on the left of the search result.
Any company can pay Google to appear as an ad at the top of the list of results.
Search Engine Optimisation has a dark side
SEO can be used to to engage in imbalanced competition, to attack a person or company’s reputation, as a shortcut to promote a client’s site without having to put in real effort, to facilitate potential online fraud or, as in the case of the EHIC renewal copycat websites, to get to the top of search engine results. Tactics have over the years included keyword spamming, generating massive numbers of low-quality pages, creating artificial link networks, and creating deceptive, poor-quality websites which appear legitimate to search engines but not to users.
The companies who own the EHIC ‘shyster’ sites don’t use ‘Black Hat’ SEO which is the most manipulative and destructive type, but they are arguably using ‘kosher’ SEO tactics for questionable means.
Why is it so Difficult to Get Them Taken Down?
So how do they get away with charging people for a service which should be free?
Firstly, search engines operate in quite a complex manner, so it is easy for these sites to slip through the net. They make updates daily and it is impossible to generate historical search engine results. Search engines also personalise results by user and geographic location. SEO manipulators change the domain for their websites frequently to avoid being caught and can easily wipe themselves from the web if they detect that someone is sniffing around.
Furthermore, even if it was possible to prove that SEO 1 Ltd and the Application Advice Service are using SEO for questionable reasons, what these companies are doing is technically legal because these sites do not purport to be the official ones. In one sense, they are just exercising their freedom to take advantage of loopholes. Google’s only obligation is to police their own standards.
They are not duping or scamming people because on the sites they state that they charge for their services and make it clear that there are other options available through the gov.uk site, often even providing a link. The problem is that people who are in a hurry don’t bother to read the small print; they just click ‘start application’ which appears in an attractive, bold lettering.
On ehic.co.uk, it states that “we are neither affiliated with nor part of the NHS. We can submit an EHIC application on your behalf in return for a fee of £35.”
This article will hopefully serve as a warning to watch out for these websites and avoid needlessly losing money. Stay vigilant.