Law enforcement officers from the UK have taken part in an international operation involving 19 countries to seize 292 domain names used to sell counterfeit goods online.
The operation was co-ordinated by Europol in collaboration with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Since August, Europol and the HIS-led US National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (NIPRCC) have been circulating leads regarding infringing websites with law enforcement partners.
The domain names seized are now in the custody of the governments involved in these operations.
Europol said anyone attempting to visit those websites will instead see a notice informing them of the seizure and educating them about the crime of wilful copyright infringement.
The most popular counterfeit products include traditional luxury goods but also sportswear, electronics, pharmaceuticals and pirated content such as films and music.
“The infringements of international property rights is a growing problem in our economies and for millions of producers and consumers,” said Rob Wainwright, director of Europol.
“Europol is committed to working with its international partners to crack down on the criminal networks responsible for this illegal activity,” he said.
While seizing the websites is only one way of disrupting and hindering the criminals behind the sale of counterfeits on the Internet, law-enforcement authorities are focusing increasingly on the ‘follow-the-money’ approach, in line with the EU Action Plan on the enforcement of intellectual property rights.
In line with this strategy, the UK Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (Pipcu) began replacing ads on copyright-infringing websites in July with banners warning users that the site is under criminal investigation.
Working in collaboration with content-verification technology provider, Project Sunblock, police banners are now replacing a wide range of legitimate brand adverts on infringing websites.
The campaign is part of Operation Creative, an initiative to disrupt and prevent websites providing unauthorised access to copyrighted content, led by Pipcu in partnership with ad agencies.
Operation Creative is aimed at cutting off pirate websites’ revenue from advertising, preventing brands appearing on sites that could damage their reputation through criminal association, raising consumer awareness about the illegality of the websites they are using, and reducing online fraud.
The latest round of Europol-coordinated domain shutdown is part of a wider international law-enforcement initiative called Project In Our Sites (IOS) to crack down on the sale of counterfeit goods on the internet.
The action bring the total number of domain names seized to 1,829 since the IOS project began in November 2012.
“Working with our international partners on operations like this shows the true global impact of IP crime,” said NIPRCC acting director Bruce Foucart.
“Counterfeiters take advantage of the holiday season and sell cheap fakes to unsuspecting consumers everywhere. Consumers need to protect themselves, their families, and their personal financial information from the criminal networks operating these bogus sites,” he said.
Europol said consumers are encouraged to report counterfeit products and websites selling them.
These crimes can cause revenue and tax losses, unemployment, environmental, health and safety issues for humans and animals, human exploitation and child labour, Europol said.
In June 2014, UK business secretary Vince Cable called for international collaboration to fight piracy and counterfeiting, saying national efforts to protect intellectual property are insufficient.
“Cross-border leakages are now enormous, and there is a recognition of the potential losses as a result of cross-border piracy,” he told the first International IP Enforcement Summit in London.
Cable said that, although piracy now carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years, and UK legislation allows enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants and seize counterfeit goods, more needed to be done.
Payment service providers and advertisers should boycott “dodgy websites”, and alternatives need to be developed to encourage people to use legal routes, he said.
Cable said there is a direct link between economic performance and IP theft, with every 1% increase in IP crime estimated to cost the UK economy 1% of GDP, which works out at £1.7bn.
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