These sites were disrupted as part of the City of London Police unit's Operation Ashiko, working in collaboration with a number of well-known brands, brand protection organisations and website registries across the globe including .uk's Nominet.
The suspended websites purported to sell well known designer goods including UGG boots, GHD hair straighteners, Abercrombie, Hollister and Jack Wills clothing, Gucci products and Thomas Sabo jewellery. However, online shoppers have been left short changed as the items they received were in fact poor quality and sometimes dangerous counterfeit goods or in some cases the items were never even delivered.
These websites are estimated to be generating tens of millions of pounds for organised criminal gangs.
The operation mirrors those by other law enforcement bodies around the globe who have been working with brand owners more closely in recent years to address the problem of counterfeit goods sold online. As with PIPCU’s Operation Ashiko, they have suspended or taken control of domain names linked with selling counterfeit goods online.
Another operation has been the European Police Office (Europol) working with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and several law enforcement agencies in Europe to seize domain names.
In June 2013 it was announced 328 domain names had been seized in a joint effort with the European and US law enforcement bodies. The American effort is called Operation In Our Sites and in the three years since its inception in June 2010 it has resulted in 2,252 domain name seizures of which 1,624 have been forfeited to the US government.
Speaking of the London Police operation, head of PIPCU, DCI Andy Fyfe, said “The fact PIPCU can announce on World IP Day that in the eight months since launching we have suspended more than 2,500 infringing websites is further evidence of the expertise of our officers and the level of their commitment to clamp down on IP crime.
"Behind many of these websites lies an organised crime gang funnelling off the money spent by unsuspecting customers on what they think are quality products."
"Consumers also need to be aware that by accessing websites like this they are running the risk of their personal details being compromised and being used for other fraudulent scams, as well as the exposing their computer to malicious malware."
Daniela Süss, Brand Protection Manager at Thomas Sabo said, "We are excited about the work PIPCU is doing in the UK market resulting in significant reductions of the number of fake shop domains selling counterfeit Thomas Sabo products. This initiative sets a massive strike against fraudulent sellers and ensures consumer protection as well as protection of the UK economy itself."
Clare Harvell, 42, from Buckinghamshire, was a victim of counterfeit fraud from one of the websites the unit has now suspended. She said, "I wanted to buy my daughter some UGG boots for Christmas and so went on to Google and searched for the particular style and clicked on one of the websites listed at the top.
"I read all the details on the website; it said it had a distribution centre in the UK and that all the boots were made and shipped from Australia. The site went into great length to describe how the boots were produced and even went into specific detail about the high quality of the lining. The site had high quality images of models wearing the boots – it just looked and sounded legitimate. So, I ordered the boots and got confirmation straight away.
"After a couple weeks the boots hadn’t arrived and then I received a phone call from DHL saying they had a package for me from abroad which I had to pay excess on and that’s when the alarm bells started ringing.
"When the boots they arrived they looked really cheap, in fact the seller had valued them on packaging as only being worth £17, when in fact I had paid over £70.00 for them. They were wrapped in cardboard and weren't even in a box."
Fortunately for Clare, Ugg were able to provide her with a letter in order for her to claim a refund from her credit card company. However, she adds:
"The issue is actually ongoing as the website owner still has my credit card details and has even tried to use them again."
PIPCU recommends online shoppers to follow the tips below to help keep fraudsters at bay:
- Trust your instincts - if an offer looks too good to believe then there is usually a catch. Legitimate popular technology and designer items are rarely discounted.
- Check the URL in the web browser. Don’t be fooled by spoof websites where the fraudsters slightly change the address.
- Ensure the website address begins ‘https’ at the payment stage – this indicates a secure payment.
- Don't access links in unsolicited emails, always type in the website address or use a search engine to find a site.
- Only deal with reputable sellers - only use sites you know or ones that have been recommended to you.
- Avoid paying by money transfers - they aren’t secure. Use an online payment option such as PayPal, which helps to protect you.
- Watch out for pop-ups appearing asking you to confirm your card details before you are on the payment stage. Never enter your PIN number online.
- If your bid for an online auction item is unsuccessful, don’t be tempted to trade off-site if another seller approaches you with a similar item. This is likely to be a scam and you won’t be covered.
- Keep security software and firewalls up-to-date. Regularly update your internet browser when a new patch-security update is released.
- Keep receipts and check these against your statement – if you spot a transaction you did not authorise speak to your card company immediately. If you are the innocent victim of any type of card fraud you will not suffer any financial loss.
PIPCU has been set up to protect UK industries that produce legitimate, high quality, physical goods and online and digital content.
The operationally independent unit launched in September 2013 and is initially being funded by the Intellectual Property Office, which is part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
By David Goldstein, Online Researcher and Consultant.