Shopping Online? Beware of Counterfeits and Criminals

By Stephen Kaufman
Staff Writer

Shoppers around the world are making online purchases in increasing numbers, but buyers should beware of the corresponding increase in online criminals trying to take advantage of them.

For the first time, U.S. and European law enforcement agencies have partnered to coordinate the seizures of websites selling counterfeit and falsely labeled goods to the public, said John Morton, the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Speaking in Washington November 26 on “Cyber Monday,” when online shopping traditionally peaks in the United States, Morton warned that criminals are using the Internet to “defraud consumers on a grand scale,” with many varieties of illegally produced counterfeit goods being presented as genuine on bogus websites.

These websites have sold “brand name” products to unsuspecting consumers, including clothes, shoes, jewelry, software, medicine, baby carriers and car safety air bags. In the process, they have not only defrauded the companies that produce the authentic goods by infringing on their intellectual property rights, but they have also cheated customers and potentially endangered them with substandard products, Morton said.

For the first time, ICE and Europol have partnered to coordinate seizures of counterfeit websites operating in the United States and Europe. Morton reported that their operations have led to the seizure of 132 websites on both sides of the Atlantic in 2012.

The ICE director said the problem is a global one that affects everyone.

When intellectual property rights are violated, “jobs are lost, businesses are stolen and ultimately consumers are cheated,” he said. Counterfeiters are only concerned with making money, and do not pay workers health care or pensions, nor do they pay taxes, he said.

Morton advised online shoppers to research the suppliers and sellers of products they are interested in, and to trust their instincts.

“You know what you’re looking for. You know the product. You know when a site is likely legitimate. This is the best line of defense for you, so don’t reason away your intuition,” he said.

“If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he said.

Trouble signs include misspellings on the website, anonymous sellers and return addresses that appear suspicious, such as those located in a country where the legitimate company does not manufacture or purchase its products, he said.

“Literally anything that you can imagine these days is being counterfeited and sold,” and it’s a “very serious problem,” Morton said.

“When people try to reduce it simply to the question of whether or not a teenager is downloading something off the Internet, that completely misses the mark. This is about counterfeit cancer medicine, counterfeit health care products. It’s serious business,” he said.

Morton said the United States would like to expand its coordinated action with more major U.S. law enforcement partners around the world, working through the World Customs Organization in Brussels.

“It’s just good law enforcement, and counterfeiting and piracy isn’t a United States problem. It affects us greatly, but it certainly affects Europe and Asia and Central and South America just as much,” he said.

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