The OFT has taken action against four online traders who deceptively sold consumers European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs).
An EHIC provides UK residents with access to state-provided healthcare in European Union countries for reduced or zero cost, and are particularly in demand at this time of year as people head off on summer holidays.
The cards can be obtained free of charge from the official NHS website, but some online traders were charging consumers (typically around £10 per application) whilst not making it clear that they were not the official provider.
As a result of the OFT’s investigations, three online traders have signed formal undertakings not to engage in deceptive selling practices. The websites are:
A fourth website (www.ehiconline.com) has been suspended by its domain name registrar following concerns expressed by the OFT, and a fifth (www.e111-online.com) has voluntarily ceased trading. The OFT investigation was launched in March 2010, in consultation with the Department of Health, and with support from Bolton Trading Standards, following complaints to Consumer Direct and the Department of Health. The websites supposedly offered a ‘review and forward’ service for the applications, for which a fee was charged. But many consumers believed they were paying for an EHIC via the official site, and were unaware that EHICs are available free of charge from the NHS. Certain sites had purchased sponsored search engine links and therefore featured prominently when consumers searched for ‘EHIC’.
The OFT took the view that the online traders had breached the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and, in certain cases, the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002. The websites were found to be misleading in their presentation as they mimicked the EHIC brand, used an official sounding domain name and omitted important information by failing to clearly disclose that they were not the official provider of EHICs.
The OFT will now actively monitor the traders’ activities and if the undertakings are breached it can take court action, including applying for an enforcement order under the Enterprise Act 2002.
Heather Clayton, Senior Director of the OFT’s Consumer Group, said: ‘While it is not unlawful to charge money for a reviewing and forwarding service, traders must be clear about the product or service they are offering, and not trick consumers into parting with money for services they don’t want. ‘People seeking to obtain government funded services such as an EHIC should check carefully that they are using an official government website.‘