Desperate learner drivers are being charged more than £200 for driving test appointments as they search for ways to get around massive waiting lists.
Unscrupulous companies are bulk booking test appointments then selling on individual slots for profit, charging as much as three times the official cost of a test.
Some are even encouraging driving instructors to sign up and make money selling appointments to their own students.
Waiting times for practical driving tests have soared since the pandemic, when more than 400,000 tests were cancelled. Even after lockdown ended and tests resumed, Covid safety restrictions slashed the number of tests carried out each day and learners currently face an average 14-week wait to secure an appointment.
The agency responsible for driving tests - the DVSA - says it is working to cut the backlog but learners in major cities including London, Birmingham and Cardiff currently fac waiting times of up to six months.
Now a BBC investigation has found companies exploiting learners’ desperation to get a licence by booking up then reselling test appointments. Some charge a small fee for helping find cancelled test slots but others are charging huge sums and claiming to use “AI-powered” software to scoop up slots as soon as they become available.
A standard driving test costs £62 for a weekday appointment and £75 for an evening or weekend slot if booked via the DVSA website. However, the BBC spoke to one learner who had paid £235 for her test and another who handed over £210 to secure a last-minute cancellation slot.
One of the agencies investigated by the BBC claimed to use an automated system that constantly refreshed the DVSA website to secure appointments and used a VPN to hide its identity and stopped it from being banned.
The same firm also sent an email to driving instructors encouraging them to sign up to its service, telling them “you can profit from this”.
Another operating on Facebook told instructors they could make up to £600 a week reselling slots to learners and claiming to guarantee an appointment within three weeks.
The BBC found that by posing as a fake driving school, it was possible to bulk book test appointments and then transfer them between learners by switching licence numbers on test slots.
The DVSA said it had put in measures to try to stop automated systems scooping up slots and urged learners only to book via its website.
A spokesman said: "We urge applicants not to use any third-party cancellation checking services and to always go through the official DVSA website.
"We’ve already put in place measures to monitor and prevent bots from accessing our systems, while also strengthening our firewall to tackle the issue."
Seb Goldin, CEO of Red Driving School said the third-party services were taking advantage of desperate learners and could be causing more test slots to be wasted.
He said: “Turning to unscrupulous organisations to try and jump the queue is putting profit into the hands of companies taking advantage of the eagerness of learner drivers.
“Desperate learners who pay over the odds for a vacant test slot are sometimes unable to take the test as their driving instructor is unavailable at short-notice, and this has resulted in a higher rate of “no shows” at the test centres, leading to more test slots going to waste, which of course adds to the test shortage problem.
“Learning to drive takes around five months. We suggest learners take and pass the theory test as soon as possible, so they are then able to book a practical test at a future time when you will be “test ready”, but only do this in consultation with your driving instructor and from the official DVSA website.”
There are currently 500,000 people waiting to take their driving test and despite the DVSA launching a recruitment drive for more examiners and extending its operating hours, the waiting time has barely changed in the last six months. The agency has admitted it is struggling to recruit examiners in some parts of the country but says it plans to cut the waiting time from 14 weeks to nine by the end of this year.