As we move into November, consumers are once again being advised to be vigilant when buying products for fireworks season. Every year, there are reports of the emergence in circulation of counterfeit or illegal fireworks and – unfortunately all too often – of the injuries caused by these non-legitimate products. The 2012−2013 IP Crime Report stated that counterfeit fireworks pose a “significant danger”, reporting the case of two boys injured by counterfeit bangers[1,2]. Following the seizure of a batch of products in 2014, a Middlesbrough councilor stated that “the black market in fireworks and counterfeit goods is nothing more than organised crime, and puts members of the public in very real danger.”
It is unsurprising that the sale of products such as fireworks is highly regulated. In the UK, for example, with the exception of outlets that are specially licensed to sell fireworks throughout the year, fireworks can only be bought from 15 October to 10 November (in addition to a five-day period before New Year, and three-day periods before both Diwali and Chinese New Year) and, even then, only from registered sellers. Furthermore, the sale of certain categories of products is completely prohibited, including ‘mortar shells’, which were banned following two deaths in 1996, and bangers and firecrackers, which were made illegal in 1997[4,5].
Online, the situation is generally much more complicated, as different geographies and different websites will tend to have varying policies. Amazon, for example, considers most categories of fireworks to be prohibited[6,7], and does not allow any fireworks to be sold via the ‘fulfillment by Amazon’ scheme (i.e. where goods are distributed from an Amazon warehouse). In some countries, fireworks may be considered to be ‘restricted products’, and therefore payment-gateway and delivery services might be prevented from being used in conjunction with their purchase. In the UK, for example, the Royal Mail does not permit the sending of fireworks by post, and thus a UK website offering to deliver these types of product via the mail service could be an indicator of non-legitimate activity.
The online sale of non-legitimate fireworks is fairly well-established: a simple search for “cheap fireworks UK”, for example, brings up (in addition to a range of sites that are likely to be legitimate) a YouTube video entitled “Where to Buy Illegal Bangers, Fireworks, Firecrackers and more” and a website offering the sale of firecrackers, explicitly stating “No Customs”. Last October, UK Trading Standards issued a warning about the problem of counterfeit and unsafe fireworks being imported into the country and sold on Facebook and other social media sites. Similar issues also occur (and may be more widespread) on the Dark Web, with marketplace sites such as Silk Road providing search functionality for “a number of illegal goods according to category, which includes drugs, fireworks, jewelry and computer equipment.”
Some of the most serious reported issues are associated with the supply chain in China, the world's largest producer, consumer and exporter of fireworks and firecrackers. In January, the China Daily reported the deaths of at least 13 people, and the injury of at least 60 more, following explosions at two fireworks factories. The story stated that “more than 80% of the accidents involving fireworks factories were caused by illegal operations” and called on the industry to “phase out illegal family factories and enhance [legitimate] company branding.” Also highlighted was the need for amendments to laws and regulations covering the sales of fireworks on e-commerce platforms, following the seizure of over 5,000 boxes of fireworks destined for sale online, and reports of sales across a range of different e-commerce sites.
Figure: (Partially obfuscated) screenshot from a website offering the sale of illegal firecrackers
All of the above factors mean that it’s advisable for manufacturers of fireworks to carry out a pro-active program of monitoring and enforcement of e-commerce activity, to tackle the online trade in any bootleg products using their brand names.
David Barnett is Head of Analysis and Consultancy in the NetNames Brand Protection team.
His forthcoming book, ‘Brand Protection in the Online World’, will be published in December and is currently available to pre-order via the publisher’s website.