By Brian Milligan
Business reporter, BBC News
For £5, anyone can buy a "co.uk" domain name
Trading standards officers say that consumers are being tricked into buying fake goods on the internet by companies pretending to be based in the UK.
The websites are often based in China, but use "co.uk" as part of their domain name, giving shoppers a false sense of security, they say.
It is thought that there could be as many as 480,000 websites which carry "co.uk", but which are not UK based.
The sites sell a range of goods from trainers to hair straighteners.
Matthew Brown was taken in by a website called trainers9.co.uk.
"As soon as I opened the box I realised they were fake trainers," he said.
But the fact that delivery was promised in less than three days, together with the apparently British address, convinced him that the site was genuine.
"It also had the safe purchase certificates at the bottom. So I was taken in by all that really."
Open to abuse
Trading standards officer believe the "co.uk" suffix is lulling consumers into a sense of false security.
In fact it offers no protection whatsoever, and certainly does not mean the site is operated by a UK company.
Internet security expert Tom Ilube said the methods fraudsters used to set up false websites and confuse people were getting more focused and professional.
He advised people to reduce the risks of being duped by:
• Searching for any user reviews of the site;
• Double clicking on the padlock symbol in the corner to reveal details about the company that registered the site; and
• Trying to connect the site to the real world by finding phone numbers or UK addresses.
Anyone prepared to give their name and address, and pay £5, can buy a co.uk domain name for a two-year period.
In total about 6% of registrations for "co.uk" domain names come from foreign companies, mostly based in China.
"There doesn't need to be a UK link," says Paul Miloseski-Reid, a trading standards officer based in Richmond, Surrey.
"So it's really open to abuse by criminals who want to pretend they're local, when they're selling unsafe, counterfeit goods."
In a survey of 52 countries, trading standards found that most countries have far tougher rules than the UK.
Usually they demand some sort of link with the country whose domain name they are adopting.
Nominet, which is responsible for giving out domain names in the UK, is unrepentant.
It is proud of the fact that eight million "co.uk" addresses are now in existence, and that the UK operates one of the most liberal internet regimes in the world.
We ask Nick Wenban-Smith, the legal counsel for Nominet, whether consumers are being hood-winked by the "co.uk" name.
"Maybe," he replies tentatively. "People need to be vigilant."
If consumers are unsure about the origins of a website, the advice is to use the "Whois" tool, on
Using that tool, we traced Matthew Brown's fake Nike trainers to Fuzhou, in Western China.
When we contacted the company, trainers9.co.uk, they did promise to carry out an internal investigation.
But practically speaking, Matthew has few options.
Neither Paypal nor his credit card company are prepared to accept any responsibility.
His only option is to post his trainers back to China, and ask for a refund.
But he does not think that option is worth trying.