Covid PCR test providers use ‘alphabet hacking’ to rip off travellers

Private PCR test firms are deploying “alphabet hacking” to get to the top of the government website before charging travellers up to four times the advertised prices, an investigation has found.

Some companies are promoting themselves to the top of the Government’s official list of test providers by using punctuation in their names to “hack” the system, according to Robert Boyle, a former senior BA executive who now heads Gridpoint Consulting. 

By using exclamation marks, they can game the filter and rise to the top of the site to be ostensibly the first choice for customers. One in eight (13 per cent) of the firms now on the government site have names which begin with punctuation or a digit.

However, their advertised prices of as little as £15 for a PCR test often turn out to be three or four times higher when prospective travellers click through to the company websites, an anomaly that has been previously criticised by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

The tactics are not illegal but come despite a promise by ministers and the CMA to crackdown on rip-offs from which there is no escape. All arrivals in the UK are now required to pay for PCR tests which average £80 per person, adding more than £300 to the cost of a holiday for a family of four.

Gridpoint branded the tactic “alphabet hacking” after its analysis found the top five listed suppliers were !!! 0-100 Travel 19, !! + + 0 0 44 Tests, ! Covid Testing Direct.com, ! Nomad and !247 Travel Tests.

‘Prices haven’t come down at all, despite what must be a huge scale and learning curve effect’

When checked by The Telegraph on Sunday, three suppliers sorted by price offered day two home test kits for £15, including the top-placed alphabetic company !!! 0-100 Travel 19. However, upon clicking through, they are actually called Travel 19 and offer day two tests at £64.99, more than four times the advertised price.

247HomeTesting, which advertised at £15, cost £64.99 while the third £15 supplier, Ag Testing, charged £59.99 although there was also a £10 shipping fee, giving a “true” total of £69.99.

Another of the cheapest, ABG COVIC, offered kits from £22 but this was for click and collect which required travelling to East Kilbride in Scotland. The home delivery kit was £75.

The next "cheapest" supplier was Tests4You, with a price of £32.95 which matched that advertised on their website and appeared to be available.

Mr Boyle said: “My take is that nothing has changed, despite the CMA investigating some companies and issuing guidelines. The Government’s site is just as big a disaster as it was six months ago, full of dodgy looking companies advertising prices that aren’t actually available.

“Prices haven’t come down at all, despite what must be a huge scale and learning curve effect.”

Ministers have been repeatedly urged to crackdown on problems with PCR tests advertised on the Government website.

Analysis by the Telegraph has previously revealed misleading and rip-off pricing by some companies.

Tests were being promoted at £1 but could only be obtained by travelling to locations such as Blackburn or East Kilbride.

In reality, the swabs to be used at home could cost up to 100 times their advertised price, with one promoted at £1 on the Government website but which cost £109.99 for a test delivery kit. Another which offered cheaper on-site swabs had no appointments before February.

After PCR tests were reintroduced for travellers entering the UK, Lord Andrew Tyrie, the former chair of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), said the Government had failed to “sort out” the problems with private providers The average UK price for PCR tests is around £80 compared with under £15 for Italy and Cyprus, and under £40 for France, Germany and Belgium.

The UK Health Security Agency and companies have been contacted for comment.

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