U.S. Gets Tough on Copy Cat Websites

By Peter Bernstein July 12, 2012

It is about time, money and interestingly is also about homeland security. In a sweeping display of serious governmental concern, investigators from an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security revealed that they have cracked down on 70 “copy cat” websites that sold counterfeit merchandize. These sites perpetrated their deception not just by offering counterfeit goods, but with the added wrinkle of making themselves appear to visitors to be “almost indistinguishable” from their real counterparts.

How they did it

As can be seen from the pictures even a sophisticated user would have a difficult time determining they were on a fake site. The first one is the fake one designed to entice someone to purchase copies of the extremely popular Beats headphones.

While the picture does not present itself in total granularity here, be assured that all of the information, including the disclaimers, and links, seem real and work as if you are conducting a transaction with an authorized vendor.

In fact, if you look at the real site in the next picture, unfortunately it demonstrates the depth and precision to which the copy cats went, to not just replicate the look, but also the feel of the real site. This includes using URLs that ring true such as “louisvuittononlineoutletus.com,” “officialsanfrancisco49ers.com” and “originalbeatsbydre.com.” In other words, such sites are easily found when doing a search. It is disturbingly impressive.

Indeed, the level of nefarious ingenuity extended to the copy cat sites use of photos of Secure Sockets Layer certificates, which we all assume means we are entering credit card information that is safe because the website is secure and verified.

John Morton, director of the department’s U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement unit, put his finger on why significant alarm is justified: “The fake sites aren’t offering obvious knockoffs. They are trying to masquerade as the real deal.” It was noted that unlike other scams, these do not have obvious red flags — misspelled names and words and absurd pricing. Morton characterized the pricing employed as being, “close to or near the legitimate prices to completely dupe the consumer.”

Keeping tabs on the bad guys

For three years, under the name “Operation in Our Sites,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit has been cracking down on counterfeit websites. To date, it has seized a total of 839 domain names used by counterfeiters. The reveal is part of “Project Copy Cat,” the next step in the investigation. It was instituted about four months ago, with investigators making online purchases from the 70 offenders. Morton noted that the goods were shipped to the U.S. from foreign countries but most were linked to entities in China.  

What was surprising about the project is that the department’s enforcement capabilities have thus far amounted to the equivalent of a posting a “buyer beware!” sign on the Internet. Banners have been put on the 70 sites that say the domain name has been seized, but thus far there have been no arrests. 

The fact that no arrests have been made, shows the complexity of dealing with bad actors in a truly connected world. Like the offshore gambling sites, going after offenders, especially if their country of origin is hard to pin down or if it is known but has a relaxed attitude toward such activity on the out-bound side of things (one can only assume they would not be pleased if their domestic enterprises were being under-mined by counterfeiting), is problematic at best. 

The only advice that seems to be applicable here is that, “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.” Morton advised customers to be vigilant and careful. While each of us like to think we are sophisticated and only buy from trusted sources, we also know that it is hard to resist a bargain, particularly if it looks literally like the “real deal.” However, the fact that Homeland Security was the lead on this hopefully a warning to those with malicious intent as a priority that this is serious business.      

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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