Understanding Your Rights

Counterfeit Goods and IP Theft

Counterfeit Goods and IP Theft are sometimes seen a ‘victimless’ crimes, but this is often far from the truth as fake products can endanger your wallet, other people’s jobs and potentially cause you physical harm.

What are counterfeit goods?

Counterfeit goods are products that illegally copy and/or look like trademarked or otherwise protected goods or brands – for example a fake Gucci bag or an illegal copy of a DVD. They can also be goods that claim to be made to a certain quality or standard, but which are actually cheaper substitutes that may not do what they are supposed to.

While most people associate counterfeit goods with clothing, music and film, a wide array of goods in everyday use are reproduced illegally. Some of them, such as medicines and car parts, are often so poorly made that they can be dangerous. Cosmetics, food and sporting equipment are just a few examples of products which can be counterfeited. Even if the product is not physically hazardous, they are often poor quality and unreliable at best.

Is it okay as long as the product is marked that it’s a fake?

No, even if a trader sells a product as a fake, he is still likely to be committing a criminal offence. For example, if a fake Nike trainer uses the name, logos, designs and other protected property of the Nike company, it is illegal whether or not it’s sold as being a fake.

Similarly, if a product slightly misspells a brand name but is still obviously trying to mimic a well-known logo, it is still likely to be illegal. If you’re unsure whether something is real or not, don’t buy it and contact the Citizens Advice Consumer Service or Crimestoppers. You can also contact them if you buy something you later discover is fake.

How can I tell if something is fake, especially when I’m buying online?

It’s not always easy, but it’s best to use your common sense. There are numerous websites providing hints on how to spot a fake but the basic advice is that genuine branded goods are only sold through authorised distributors and are not normally sold at places like market stalls. Some high-end brands, such as Rolex, do not even allow their new products to be sold online, partly due to the prevalence of fakes (although this does not prevent secondhand sales taking place, even if it’s someone buying something new in a shop and then immediately selling it on the internet).

Always remember, if something seems too good to be true then it’s probably a fake.

There is an increasing trend in the amount of counterfeits being offered online – as it’s a place where dodgy traders know that buyers can’t look at goods before they purchase them. Online sellers of counterfeit products may also be in another country (but may purport to be based in the UK), as they believe this will make it more difficult to catch them.

Once more, common sense is paramount. For example, is the price much lower than comparable goods offered elsewhere online? If buying on a site such as eBay or Amazon Marketplace, does the seller have positive feedback stretching back over at least a few months? Does the website you’re buying from have a long trading record, or has it recently popped up online? Do they insist on you paying via direct bank transfer, e-vouchers or money transfer (which can make it easier for someone to disappear with your cash, with little recourse, when you discover you’ve been conned)?

Always remember that many famous online stores and even high streets brands don’t just sell products themselves on their websites but also allow third-parties to sell goods (with the website taking a commission). Just because a product is on a well known website, it doesn’t mean that website has checked its authenticity if it’s sold by a third-party seller. It also doesn’t mean you’re 100% protected if something does turn out to be fake – you would need to check the terms and conditions of the site to see whether you are offered any protection by the site itself when purchasing from a third party seller.

It’s also important to remember that anyone anywhere in the world can buy a .com or .co.uk website address, so these are not signs either that it’s an ‘official’ site or that it’s based in the UK. www.brand-i.org can help you find genuine retailers of brand name products.

If you’ve unwittingly bought a fake either in person or online, contact Citizens Advice Consumer Service or Crimestoppers.

But why should I care, if it means I can get something that looks expensive but is actually really cheap?

As mentioned above, some counterfeit products can be very dangerous. As these goods are produced by people who know they are breaking the law, they often pay little attention to quality or safety. Potential hazards from fake products range from skin reactions due to dangerous chemicals being used when making fake branded clothes, to people being killed by badly made, knock-off electrical goods (you can find out more about that on the site Counterfeit Kills). Fake car parts could cause your engine to break or even result in a serious crash.

Counterfeit goods also have extensive links to organised crime, which means that by buying fake goods you could inadvertently help to fund drug dealers and people traffickers. Figures quoted by David Lammy MP said that the loss to genuine business in the UK from counterfeits is at least £1.3 billion a year and £900 million of this goes directly to organised crime.

Counterfeits can be found in nearly all areas of business and can be incredibly deadly, which is why we need to stop them. In 1989 Partnair Flight 394 crashed off the coast of Denmark killing all 55 people on-board. It was later discovered that counterfeit aircraft parts caused a chain reaction resulting in the plane disintegrating in mid-air. While most counterfeiting cases aren’t as dramatic as this, it shows just how dangerous fakes can be.

Ok, but isn’t anti-counterfeiting really about protecting the profits of massive multi-national corporations?

Admittedly it is the biggest or most exclusive names that tend to get counterfeited the most, but trying to stop counterfeiting is far from just working in the interests of massive corporations. As mentioned, it’s also about preventing money being funnelled to organised crime and stopping potentially dangerous and unchecked products from being on the market.

It’s also about protecting legitimate, often small, businesses that follow the rules and offer real, safe products to the consumer either as a manufacturer or retailer. Counterfeiting cuts into their business both through sales being diverted to fake goods, and in some cases due to a dip in consumer confidence (for example, some consumers avoid all online pharmacies, whether legitimate or not, due to fears over the dodgy products supplied by the disreputable ones).

What is IP Theft?

IP stands for intellectual property, which is the protection afforded to ‘intangible assets’, for example the copyright in literary, musical of other artistic works, as well as things such as trademarks, logos and designs (even the tread pattern of a car tire can be protected intellectual property!). IP Theft can therefore be related to both physical counterfeit goods – a fake Ralph Lauren shirt would steal the intellectual property of the company’s logo – as well as ‘virtual’ ones, such as films that are illegally downloaded from the internet.

If IP Theft is just about ‘intangible’ things such as logos and copyright, surely downloading things from the internet is a victimless crime?

seized-computerIP supports the UK’s creative industries, which are worth $36 billion to the country and employ 1.5 million people.

Although many are tempted to make the argument that it’s just big, profitable companies who are affected by illegal downloading, it’s actually the smaller artists and companies who are hurt the most. Independent film, videogame and music producers and shops often work on very tight profit margins and can be seriously hurt by widespread illegal downloading of their property, as can the many people who rely on these smaller companies for work.

Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy estimates that IP crime causes businesses and consumers in the world’s 20 largest nations $125 billion every year, much of that affecting smaller companies.

Remember, just because there’s no physical product, it doesn’t stop it being theft.

What is Devon and Somerset Trading Standards doing about all this?

We regularly investigate the sale of counterfeit goods in shops, car boot sales and markets. As the sale of these items has a direct economic effect on trade and the safety of Devon and Somerset consumers, we work with other Trading Standards authorities, the Police, Central Government, other enforcement agencies and businesses to stop counterfeit goods being sold in the region.

We carry out inspections and seize and destroy illegal items offered for sale, covering retail premises, warehouses, markets and even internet sales. While Trading Standards mainly concentrates on physical goods, we’re also involved with other agencies to try and stop virtual IP theft.

Anyone caught dealing in counterfeits in the Devon and Somerset area can expect to end up in court and face the prospect of having their assets confiscated as Proceeds of Crime. Market organisers could also face prosecution if they don’t take action to prevent counterfeits from being sold at their markets.

I’ve seen some counterfeit goods on sale, what should I do?

If you have information about the sale of counterfeit items, please contact the Citizens Advice Consumer Service, or Crimestoppers. They will pass your information on to us and if appropriate we will investigate and take action.

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