I’m mighty proud of my Sunderland (or Mackem) roots, but every so often your hometown drops a monumental clanger that you cannot overlook.
If you happen to Google my name, for instance, you’ll see that I happen to share a name (and hometown) with a very different type of character. I think I’m justified in calling that one of life’s more unfortunate coincidences.
And as this week happens to be the deadline for tax returns, it didn’t escape my notice that a firm operating out of Sunderland has been caught in a devious act of skulduggery.
Who4, which is predominantly based out of an office near Southwick in Sunderland, operates a number of ‘copycat’ Government websites that charge hefty sums for completing rudimentary applications including tax returns, passport applications, and driving licenses.
The site to have made most headlines is taxreturngateway.com, which has drawn hundreds of angry complaints from customers who believed it was the official HMRC self-assessment gateway.
Having paid a typical fee of £400, they later discovered that this was an administration charge rather than a tax payment, and in some cases that the preliminary calculations provided by the site were often radically different from the genuine picture.
The site notes that it is not affiliated to HMRC and that it is providing an additional service, but it’s not a warning that has been clear enough for stressed consumers to heed.
On the face of it, it’s a moral dilemma not unlike the issue of payday loans. The ethical question cannot ever be straightforward while there is a demand for a service provided on clear terms. You might even find a smite of sympathy for the firms involved, if you try hard enough.
But what muddies the water for Tax Return Gateway is that when tested with figures that would ordinarily result in a refund from HMRC for overpayment, it invariably decided that a tax payment was due.
Even when the figures would have reflected an overpayment in tax of £17,000, the site allegedly returned an estimated bill of over £36,500 – for which a £1,000 payment was due. How can its calculations possibly be so adrift?
The reasoning behind this is clear enough, even if the ethics are not. If you charge a fee to initiate a refund, it’s more blatantly obvious that it is a fee, rather than a service charge that has been ambiguously dressed up to look like a bill.
The firm insists that its site is transparent and denies any culpability for the results it provided on fictitious calculations.
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The move from paper to online applications has left itself open to this kind of problem.
As we continue to see – from dubious payday loan companies to pension scams – online firms don’t hesitate to exploit unwitting customers, hiding behind (relative) anonymity and wafer-thin guidelines to stay within the law until it catches up with them.
In many cases it’s only exposure and awareness that end up stifling that happy flow of income.
The mistake here appears to have been greed. Offering Google enough to land top of the search engine listings for relevant terms has meant ruffling far too many feathers – and word then spreads.
If this outfit is not investigated, then it’s worth spreading the word to make sure we don’t add to its revenue.
Sunderland may struggle for business more than the rest of the UK, but this certainly isn’t the answer.