Counterfeiting crackdowns: Do they do any good?

It used to be that if you wanted a Gucci knockoff bag, you had to walk down, well, pretty much any street in New York City. But these days that type of merchandise is available online from anywhere.

The problem is that a lot of it is being passed off as the real thing.

At least on the street, you can be pretty sure that the copy of "Harry Potter" on DVD the guy is selling out of his trunk is probably illegal. And few people would think that the Rolex they’re getting for $50 is the real deal. But online, people can be fooled into thinking they're getting the genuine article. And in any case, the companies that make the real gear (movies, football jerseys, music CDs, software and handbags mostly) don’t get any money from sales of the fakes.

Related coverage:

Cyber Monday sting takes out 150 websites selling counterfeit good

Counterfeit electronics put troops at risk

So every year the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and other government organizations go about seizing the domain names of companies that peddle this type of fakery. This has happened twice now on Cyber Monday, with this year’s haul of 150 counterfeit-selling sites being shut down. 

Sites that are taken down by the government are replaced with a banner that says why the site is no longer selling knockoff gifts and warning consumers to be careful when shopping online. And those banners are popular. Last year the feds busted half as many sites, and the hit count for the empty pages with warning banners still topped 70 million. I wonder if there is an advertising angle in there somewhere?

But unlike the physical world, we won’t see parades of defendants being marched off to custody or piles of fake Lakers jerseys being burned.

What the feds did was capture domain names. Nobody got arrested and no goods were confiscated. Many of the sites this year had roots in China, obviously outside of U.S. law. And I doubt the Chinese are going to be helpful in rounding up the criminals for us. It’s probably not a crime in China to rip people off in the United States anyway, kind of like that old joke where both a U.S. citizen and a Russian could stand in their respective capitals and shout “Down with the president of the United States!” without getting in trouble with authorities.

Unfortunately, other than educating consumers about the danger of using sites like those that were closed — it hurts real companies struggling to make ends meet and subjects buyers to substandard and sometimes even dangerous knockoffs — it won’t do much good. The sellers are not really out anything except a domain registration fee. They still have their electronic store and their entire inventory.

GreatGucciBagsForCheap.com simply becomes ReallyGreatGucciBagsForCheap.com and keeps on going. And 150 sites isn’t even a drop in the bucket of the overall problem. It’s a drop in a bucket floating in a lake.

Just today I got spam e-mail directing me to a functioning site where I could get an obviously counterfeit copy of Adobe Photoshop CS5 for just $49! What a great deal. And they went out of their way to tell me that my copy would come with a valid serial number. Not that I bought it. Instead I forwarded the URL to the FTC.

What the FBI does on Cyber Monday is good, though I think continuing efforts to lop off the heads of counterfeit sites all the time instead of in one large mass would do more good overall.

But like the war on drugs, the fight against counterfeit goods-selling websites won’t ever really be won until consumers stop buying counterfeit goods. The National Crime Prevention Center is at least looking to raise awareness, launching a anti-piracy blitz, including TV, radio and Internet messages, warning people about the consequences of counterfeit goods.

Until demand drops there can be no real victory, and it will be near-impossible to even hold the line.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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