A deliberately maintained confusion
Websites that offer assistance with administrative procedures are related to the areas in which the consumer must carry out online procedures to obtain an official document from the administration: vehicle registration, obtaining the Crit’Air sticker, civil status acts… Companies that direct them buy reference from search engines to be at the top of the results and thus attract internet users
If these websites are not illegal, their practices are nevertheless sometimes deceptive. They use official logos, the tricolor Marianne reserved for government services, administrative terms to make the consumer believe they are on an official or approved site when these are commercial sites to help create administrative files. Customers are required to provide the same information as if they were on the official website. Therefore, the activity of these websites consists simply in reproducing these requests on the administration pages, subject to payment and additional processing time. Prices or subscription terms are not always clear. Information about the 14-day right of withdrawal regarding online purchases is often missing.
The desire to protect consumers, especially the most vulnerable, against deceptive commercial practices and fraud related to online administrative procedures prompted the DGCCRF to investigate.
The survey conducted in 2020 aimed to investigate mainly two types of practices:
- on the one hand, those that consist of offering to carry out administrative procedures for a fee, letting the consumer believe that he is on an official website;
- on the other hand, those who present the subscription to a single service, but which turns out to be a commitment for several months in the form of a subscription.
The survey conducted by DGCCRF included 41 objects in the form of websites, 79 visits were made to them and 163 control actions were performed.
DGCCRF investigators targeted controls at:
- websites that have been the subject of consumer complaints or reports;
- websites identified by DGCCRF investigators in search engines.
A growing practice which is subject to abuse
What is a deceptive marketing practice?
A deceptive commercial practice is a process that consists in deceiving the consumer by unfair means, such as, for example, an omission, a concealment or the provision of false or ambiguous information which is likely to create confusion and which leads or has likely to lead the consumer to make a business decision that he would not have made otherwise.
The survey found that of the 41 facilities inspected, 25 did not comply with the regulations and a large majority tried to deceive the consumer.
The main problems identified are:
- Deceptive business practices on the nature of the service, which consists in making the consumer believe that he is ordering an act on an official website when it comes to an assistance service in creating an administrative file. The graphic card used on controlled websites often aims to avoid confusion with official websites, especially through the use of the French and EU flags, the Marianne or ANTS logo, or even different pictures (voter’s card, court of Paris… ). Some professionals submit a prefectural vehicle registration approval without being a holder or complying with the conditions. Other sites hide their professional identity or put up an official-looking name like “registration office”, or even claim to be the website of the national agency for secure government documents, when it obviously is nothing.
- Costs: prices are not necessarily displayed. A page also showed getting a free Crit’Air sticker but not specifying that their service costs around €60.
- Lack of pre-contractual information. Many controlled websites miscommunicate or fail to communicate mandatory information to protect the consumer. Very often, these sites deny any right of withdrawal or do not mention it. A lack of information was also observed in many cases regarding the possibility of using a consumer intermediary. Also, very often the exact contact details of the professional are not provided.
- Premium numbers. DGCCRF investigators observed during several inspections the use of a premium rate phone number for processing customer requests, although this practice is prohibited.
- Other shortcomings: more marginally, the absence on some websites of the mention of the right to register on the canvas objection list and the confirmation of the contract in a durable medium after the order, which are nevertheless mandatory.
In the face of the observed deficiencies, the DGCCRF departments implemented the most appropriate follow-up. Professionals were sent 7 warnings for the most serious violations (lack of pre-contractual information) For cases of fraudulent commercial practices, depending on the seriousness of the facts (12 administrative orders, 5 criminal reports and 1 administrative report.
Based on certain records, the procedures for transaction were initiated with the agreement of local public prosecutions and resulted in the payment of fines, one of which was €50,000.
In view of the additional cost that the use of these sites may bring to consumers, the high rate of anomalies observed as well as the constant flow of creation and rapid closure of websites that make money from administrative procedures, the DGCCRF will continue checks its in this sector.