Confusion of ‘abusive’ health card websites

Posted: 15th January 2014

A company accused of duping the public into paying unnecessary fees to obtain free European Union (EU) health cards has been ordered to give up two of its ‘objectionable’ internet domains to the Department of Health (DoH).

EHICGovernment lawyers argued that the websites were deceiving the public into paying for European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs) which ensure that British travellers receive health care in EU member states and which are provided without charge by the NHS.

Describing the fees as a ‘widespread and known problem’, the DoH reported the company to Internet dispute resolution service Nominet for using domain names containing the words ‘NHS’, ‘EHIC’ and ‘E111’ - the form that preceded the EU cards.

A Nominet expert found that the ‘confusing and deceptive’ domains were ‘abusive registrations’ and declared that their activities ‘should be stopped’. The evidence, including a history of complaints, strongly suggested that they were ‘simply a means for extracting unnecessary fees from the public’.

EHIC cards replaced E111 forms in 2006 and ensure mutual recognition of health services for millions of Britons and other European citizens travelling throughout the EU. The websites charged customers up to £23.99 to submit applications for the cards to the NHS.

The expert noted that even experienced Internet users were confused by unofficial sites and that the NHS was often blamed by members of the public for failing to stop their activities. The DoH pointed to newspaper reports about the alleged ‘scams’ and a recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) that an advert for one of the websites was ‘misleading’.

In denying that the domain name registrations were abusive, the company argued that it provided clients with an ‘added-value service’ and that its websites contained repeated statements that they are not associated with the NHS.

The expert was particularly concerned by unanswered complaints that the company had provided no services at all to some paying customers. Complaints that had appeared online suggested that the domains were ‘generating a high level of dissatisfaction and confusion’.

Significant numbers of internet browsers had used services advertised on the websites in the mistaken belief that they were connected to the NHS. The domains also tarnished the good name of the NHS and the expert concluded, "This latter phenomenon leads me to the conclusion that the company’s activities should be stopped as a service to the public."