The trade in fakes over the internet has become a major challenge. The problem began when eBay was targeted by counterfeiters as an ideal vehicle for marketing and selling fakes. As such auction sites and sales platforms have become a virtual shop front for a multitude of counterfeit products, including household products, electronics, fashion, entertainment, luxury goods and even medicines. Under pressure from rights holders and government, auction sites and internet sellers such as eBay began to display advice, programmes and methods for dealing with fakes on their sites.
However, despite these efforts, entire fake websites (often operating from far-off countries) have continued to spring up, often using well-known brands within their domain names to ply their trade to unsuspecting shoppers — see the genuine UGG® website for example. The global reach and anonymity of the internet provides an ideal environment for criminals to operate, and poses new challenges for enforcement as illicit profits are laundered and distributed across the world never reaching the legitimate economies.
Recently internet service and payment providers have begun to realise the need for greater collaboration with rights holders and enforcement, as they see their reputations, profits and services being linked to international crime.
In 2011, an Internet Stakeholder Dialogue led by the EU Commission successfully signed up brand owners and some of the main online traders to a Memorandum of Understanding, creating a code of practice for dealing with online fakes. This is currently being renegotiated and amended to meet new and fluid challenges. The EU Observatory in Alicante has a specific multi agency - business working group aimed at combating online abuse and is working to develop more effective approaches to combat the problem.
In the UK several authorities, including the police and trading standards, now have dedicated eCrime Units, set up to tackle all kinds of online criminality, including counterfeiting. The Metropolitan Police were the first to take down significant numbers of websites and a new unit was set up in September 2013 by the City of London Police, funded by the government (the Intellectual Property Office) known as PIPCU (Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit). PIPCU focusses not only on enforcement action but also on getting payment providers to block facilities on offending sites and on tracing the criminals upstream to the source country (often China), working with Interpol, trading standards and other stakeholders already tackling online IP crime.
The UK's National Cyber Crime Unit is being set up within the new National Crime Agency by the Police Central e–Crime Unit (which was responsible for an impressive record of website takedowns over several years) and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).
Operationally, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau is tasked with delivery of counter–fraud intel within the strategy and has also been asked to act as the UK intel hub for Europol and US Homeland Security for ‘Operation in our Sites’ — the global IPR enforcement operation to disrupt illegal websites selling counterfeits, which has been in progress for several years now. Other points to note:
- the National TS e–Crime Centre (NTSeCC) has launched, while the Police Central e–Crime Unit has reduced its former takedown activity
- the government is more interested in securing free online access to music, films and other copyright content than in providing resources to combat online fakes
- review of the EU Enforcement Directive, to include more online measures at European level, has stalled
- Facebook and other social media have become the latest forum for the sale of fakes
On another front, ACG members themselves are in dialogue with several of the major payment providers to agree a strategy for blocking credit card transactions involving the purchase of fakes, which will help to starve fake websites and traders of funds.
Each of these initiatives will provide a useful building block in future successful strategies for tackling the problem.