Replica Handbags and Black Hat SEO

Google Gives Update on How It’s Combating PiracyAs I do in a normal day, I was patrolling the mean streets of the web looking for websites selling fakes.  On this particular day, one site came to my attention.  How does a church website with no e-commerce component show up as a top search engine result for replica handbags?  When I examined the website’s source code, I observed that there was a javascript injection placing links into their website unbeknownst to them.

Below is an example of what I observed:

     
     elementId = Math.floor(Math.random() * 10001);
     document.writeln('
‘); document.getElementById(‘block’ + elementId) .style.display=’none’; <a href=”http://xxxxxx.com/db-gestion/pmd/styles/default/images/ icons/brandname/brand-name-products.php”>brand name products</a>

Search engines rank websites based on inbound links from legitimate websites.  A javascript injection like this created invisible links to the bad guys’ website the search engines can see but the viewer cannot.  The way this is done is by finding an open doorway into a legitimate website that does not have the latest security updates.  This is an example of a black hat technique that helps increase search engine results for their illegal site.  The lesson to be learned (besides keeping your software updated) is that there are many hidden efforts behind marketing contraband products and, in turn, many clues left behind if you know where to find them.

Now I’m going to finish my coffee.

Branch Offices for Counterfeit Luxury Goods

During one of my strolls through the dark alleys of the web I came across another interesting black hat search engine optimization technique: branch offices for counterfeit luxury goods installed within legitimate sites.  At first observation, the website I saw selling counterfeits looked like any other.  But, after a closer look, the URL appeared to be much longer than the typical domain-based URL like fakestuffseller.com.  Instead it looked like this: http://legitimatesite.com/includes/ice/ _vti_cnf/lib/ brand/boots/brand-boots.php.  I noticed an extra directory ‘/includes/‘ that looked out of place and perhaps would not be in the normal structure of this particular legitimate website.  My next step was to test my theory and delete the extra crap (/includes/ice/ _vti_cnf/lib/brand/boots/brand-boots.php) from the URL, leaving it to be simply legitimatesite.com.  As I has suspected this led me to a perfectly legitimate university website.

The two questions you are asking right now are “how?” and “why?”.  Allow me to enlighten you.  The “how” is similar to what I explained in another recent article I wrote regarding black hat search engine optimization techniques where hackers find weaknesses (like unlocked doors) in websites whose security software is not up to date.  Once that vulnerability is detected, the hacker can install thousands of his own websites within your website without your knowledge and, perhaps, for years before you even notice anything is strange.  The reason they do it is so that they can create tens of thousands of websites selling counterfeits.  Since this is done on a mass scale, the criminal is only minimally affected when your lawyer takes down poor old legitimatesite.com.  He has an unlimited supply.  Now I’m going to finish my coffee.

Brand Protection and Social Media

In the era of telecommuting and coffee shop branch offices, Facebook has replaced the watercooler, LinkedIn is the new resume and Skype is the new boardroom. Let’s face it. Your online ‘brand’ has become your most public persona. Along with the vast benefits that social media bring a new world has opened up for fraud, misinformation and brand abuse. Holmes is not only a top brand protection investigator. He is also the one-man marketing department for his firm. Combining his two passions of trademark investigations and social media, he will take you on his journey from creating his first blog, designing his firm’s website, and planning a social media strategy and then arm you with brand protection tactics that he employs for his clients.  Rob gave this talk, entitled Brand Protection and Social Media in June 2012 in Dallas, Texas.

Masking IP Addresses: Why It’s Important

The two most important things when conducting undercover contact is obtaining sensitive data and, yes, not blowing your cover.  If a subject were to examine the source code (header) of an email I sent them, it may reveal my IP address.  If I were to access a subject’s website, my IP address will be revealed.  Without a subpoena, anyone can use your IP address to determine the name of your Internet Service Provider and the general region of the terminal that connected to the web during your contact.  This is why it is important to use a service that specializes in masking IP addresses.  I use a pay service that is completely legal, inexpensive, fast and convenient. The service I use allows me to choose IP addresses from all over the world at the drop of a dime.

If the subject is offering fashion goods, I am sure not to use an IP address from NY, CA, UK, France or Italy because the legal departments for many of these brands are located in these regions. If I am investigating a software counterfeiter I will steer clear from IP address located in CA, WA or MA.  A paranoid counterfeiter will block customers from those regions, or at least notice that they are being monitored. So My first advice in masking IP addresses is to choose an IP address that is not in a state/country your client’s industry or headquarters is based.  Then you must discipline yourself to never check these emails from your phone or an unfamiliar computer terminal.  No matter how curious you are, the email can wait until you are at your PC with the ability to mask the same, consistent IP address region you have previously used.  Just as we are watching for bad guys to make mistakes, they are waiting for us to do the same.

Now I’m going to finish my coffee.

How the Megaupload Case Has Hurt Brand Protection

Kim DotcomThe reason the case against Megaupload founder Kim DotCom has hurt brand protection is because it has nothing to do with trademark enforcement and no one knows it.  With all of the news this case is getting, the public-at-large does not know the difference between counterfeiting and piracy.  There are many different kinds of Intellectual Property but only trademark was set up to protect the consumers before the content owner.  The purpose of a trademark is to identify the origin of a good or service.  The way this works is that, if you see my name or logo on my product, you can trust that it was made by me.  Trademarks are set up as a seal of trust and quality between a manufacturer and a consumer.  People who slap your favorite company’s logo on an inferior product deserve to be made to stop.  By placing a company’s logo on a commercial work without permission helps dilute the brand.  Even if your use is apparently harmless, they must enforce all unauthorized uses in order to be allowed to enforce the baddies.  It’s the basic rule that your school teacher had when you were a child, “If I make an exception for you, I’d have to do it for all the other kids.”  Copyright protection is quite different.  It protects the creator or the owner.  While that is still a noble cause, the difference needs to be made clearer to the public.  The Copyright Act of 1790 granted an author up to 28 years of exclusive rights to his work as long as he was alive.  In 1948 the United Nations passed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states ‘Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.’  I am citing this to make it clear that I vehemently support the protection of content.  I do not, however, support the combining of these interests.  Our founding fathers were careful to place copyright in the hands of the legislature (Library of Congress) and trademarks in the hands of the Executive Branch (US Patent and Trademark Office).  This was no mistake.

In 1946 the United States passed the Lanham Act which prohibited trademark infringement, trademark dilution and false advertising.  In 1984 the Trademark Counterfeiting Act established specific criminal penalties for the commercial use of a counterfeit trademark.  Later, in 1999, the AntiCybersquatting Act was passed to prohibit the unauthorized commercial use of a trademark in a domain name.  President George W. Bush made trademarks a priority when he appointed the first-ever Intellectual Property Czar, which was an undersecretary position within the Commerce Department.  Of course trademark protection should be important.  Our brands are exported all over the world and we rely on the reputation of those brands for more than a third of our economy.  When President Obama was elected, he promoted the IPEC (Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator) position from undersecretary to full cabinet status.  Somewhere between then and now this person with executive power has been dubbed the Copyright Czar.  If the Executive Branch is granted to be in charge of trademarks and patents, why are they in the copyright business?  Perhaps American corporations and our own government have been blurring the distinction between the two to make sloppy cases less noticeable.  Or perhaps this is happening so that the specificity of Intellectual Property Rights becomes so unrecognizable that anyone can be prosecuted for almost anything.  Or perhaps this is all just a completely innocent mix-up.  Once we start to see copyright enforcement activity at the USPTO, we will know that our constitution is being ignored.  Protection of all property needs to be respected, but the trademark community needs to stand alone in this fight if we want to bring trust back to the consumer.

Now I’m going to finish my coffee.

Even Some Prisoners are Chinese Knockoffs

Throughout the years in the anti-counterfeiting business there have been a few times where we, and our clients, have lauded our victories when a raid was accomplished on a factory making Chinese knockoffs.  Once, I remember, back in 2006 our client’s attorney actually saw thirteen people in handcuffs.  Chinese nationals, in China.  In cuffs for making fakes.  Not bad for a case that started with some handbags sold by a Purse Queen in Missouri!  Every time I tell that story, I finish it with the punchline that “I’m sure the cuffs came right off when my client boarded the plane.”  I’m not faulting China and that really isn’t my point here.  But the disconnect between cultures is.  There is obviously a totally different meaning of ‘authenticity’ when you cross oceans.  You may recall the incident during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games when the seven year-old vocalist who was commissioned to sing ‘Ode to the Motherland’ was replaced by a prettier lip synching faker.  A recent Slate article reports on a whole new kind of counterfeiting: fake prisoners.  No kidding, guys.  People who are facing jail time in China can hire a less-fortunate guy to confess, or just replace him in the can.  This brings me to a whole new thought on the counterfeit enforcement business.  While diplomacy with China is important in the fight against counterfeit goods, raiding their factories and jailing their owners is probably not effective.

The  most important facet of my solution is to curtail the demand in the United States and other countries with a massive consumer base.  The way to do that is to enforce against all sellers of this product in those countries.  Contrary to the spirit voice in Field of Dreams, wise businessmen will tell you that supply does not dictate demand.  Stop promising your client you’re gonna get the “big factory” and focus on stopping the mid-level distributors here.  I promise your performance numbers will increase and, most important, you will help restore value and dignity to the client’s brand.  I know from great experience that many people who became huge sellers of counterfeit goods here in the United States would have stopped if they had just worn a pair of handcuffs early on.  One night in jail works wonders on the soul.  Enforcing the smaller crimes is part of the plan that makes many of our inner cities safer.  Curtailing vandalism in your neighborhood leads to less violence down the line.  In tough economic times it is easy to cut costs and focus on the biggest problems.  The problem with the latter is that no big problem started that way.  My suggestion to my readers is to simply place most of your efforts on the cities and countries with the highest retail sales of genuine product.  I’m not talking about the people selling fakes at swap meets or in the bad neighborhoods.  I’m speaking of the mid-level distributors who are getting their product directly from China and supplying those folks.

Now I’m going to finish my coffee.

Successful Trademark Clearance Investigation

When a creative team decides on possible names for a new company or product, the legal team must conduct proper trademark clearance to be sure that the use of that name is not infringing upon the rights of someone else who may already be using the mark.  This process can avoid lawsuits down the road.  Trademark Counsel first must search every known record for use of the name.  Sources include normal databases one may expect but, in addition, hundreds of other sources will be searched that may include nationwide phone records, business filings, sound-a-like databases and many more.  Once the searches have been completed the attorney will comb through the results and select the instances that may become a problem if the client were to move forward with using the name.  If there are too many potential problems, it may be recommended that the creative team choose another name.  If not, the clearance process will begin.

Even though someone else may have used the same name at one time, it is possible that they ceased using it.  If this is the case, legal counsel may advise that the name has been abandoned and that it is appropriate for for the creative team to use that mark.  If legal counsel does not conduct proper clearance, the company could be sued for infringement.  If a trademark investigator does his job properly, the attorney will have the understanding she needs to give the proper guidance.  The Holmes Method consists of these five steps:

Who:  Determine exactly who the entity is that used the mark.  Are they still in business?  What is their current contact info?  Has the mark been reassigned?  Was the entity acquired by another entity?

What:  Find out on what materials the mark was used.  Is it printed on the product or packaging?  On the website?  What about on menus, brochures, business cards?

When:  The date of first use, or DOFU for us industry folks, is when the mark was used for the very first time.  If it was the result of a name change, what was the previous name?  Are there business records that show a date?  Perhaps cached versions of the subject’s website show earlier use.

When:  Is the mark currently in use?  If so, you should obtain a sample.  If not, what was the date of last use?  It could be as simple as finding out when a company name was changed.  Usually it is not simple and requires digging and/or contact with the subject.

Where:  What is the geographic scope of their use of the mark?  Do they use it only in the United States?  Only in a particular region or certain states?  Worldwide?

How:  The use of a trademark for your purposes may be perfectly acceptable if your attorney determines the Goods and Services (or International Class) to not be infringing on the other mark.

Techniques in determining the answers to these five questions are likely going to be different for each investigation.  Methods may include social engineering by way of email or telephone, or digging through public records.  When taking the case, be sure to ask the client if they have a particular date in mind.  Sometimes the potential conflict was discovered while both were in use simultaneously.  If this is the situation, there will be a Magic Date on which to focus.  Whatever the case, you must put great care into thoroughly investigating these possibilities.  This ain’t for the faint of heart.  Your client’s entire business is at stake.

Now I’m going to finish my coffee.

Why Seizing Domains is Reaping Failure

The bad guys don’t care.  Just like popping a wheelie on your bike, it’s a neat trick but it only works for a few seconds.  Please understand that we are investigating criminals, not websites.  The person on your staff that tells you they are investigating websites should be fired for incompetence.  That is like a homicide investigator saying he investigates piano wire.  He clearly doesn’t understand the difference between a perpetrator and a tool.

In 2008, I innovated a way to help my clients join multiple websites into one case.  Basically I proved that they were all tools used by the same individual and/or crime gang.  Some clients took my advice and allowed me to use this data to assist law enforcement and put these thugs away.  One of these investigations led to the arrest of  the “King of Spam” Oleg Nikolaenko.  The Intellectual Property Rights community at-large exploited this new innovation for their short term gain by seizing domains by the hundreds (and sometimes thousands).  Not one of these lawsuits with fake million-dollar judgments have yielded in an arrest.

The reason we are fighting the good fight is to stop people from doing bad things and hold them accountable for their actions.  Whether you are enforcing trademark rights or car thefts, this has to be done one person at a time.  In 2010 a client asked me what we could take away from the offenders to make them stop.  My simple answer was “Their freedom.”  Entrepreneurs will always find a way to do business.  Bad guys need to be put away to reflect on their actions.  Nothing else will stop them.  When you take away only the tool, you are training the criminal to improve.  I am not in the business of training crooks.  Are you?

My next series of articles will focus on the components of an Internet crime ring and how they continue to elude.  Please stay tuned as I astonish you with techniques that have never been revealed to an enforcement community.

Now I’m going to finish my coffee.

Rob’s Jobs Series: “The Hero”

Living by Accident - The HeroAs children, and even adults, we follow our fathers’ footsteps and look to them for answers.  “What would Dad do?” or “Let me ask Dad.” are common things that may go through one’s mind.  Everyone who knew my father tells me how great he was.  He excelled at everything he did.  His personality was bigger than life and he was kind.  He faced adversity with a rare combination of ferocity and excitement.  Until he didn’t.  At fifty-five years old my father, my hero, left this planet on his own accord.  No.  He didn’t spring for tickets aboard SpaceX.  He drank a bottle of tequila and swapped an aspirin for a bullet.

I know I promised this to be a business lesson and I assure you I am getting there.  Many success coaches tell you to mimic the habits of successful people.  While I do not disagree, it is important to be selective with which habits you follow.  The author of Ecclesiastes was one of the wisest men in all of the land yet he had made every mistake a man could make.  How could this be?  If he is so wise, and his wisdom so valuable, how can he be this flawed?  Because that’s reality.

At thirty-four years old I found myself looking at a roadmap of only two decades with a not-so-happy ending.  I was in the same career path as my father.  My business was doing quite well and it was similar to his.  His industry peers were also mine.  Heck. I look like him and my waistline was headed in his direction.  I was all set until things started going downhill.  I was a husband and a business owner with a lot of pressures.  What now?  I started by telling myself that I needed to figure out what Dad would do.  It took me a few months to realize that wasn’t going to work.

When I was seven, my dad taught me to ride a bicycle.  I was scared to pedal without his hand on the seat.  One day, I looked back to see he was far behind and I was pedaling just fine.  It has been eight years since Dad let go of that bicycle and I’m still doing just fine.  We search our lives for heroes and father figures.  Many heroic figures chose to end their own lives with alcohol and a bullet including Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Junior Seau, Kurt Cobain, Don Cornelius, Vincent van Gogh, Freddie Prinze, Richard Jeni and Jeret Peterson.

Heroes are like drugs.  They make you feel like you can do anything.  Until they don’t.  Listen carefully.  There is no one better fit to manage your life than you.  There is no one stronger than you.  So put on those shoes and stand the hell up straight.  It’s time to be your own hero.

Now I’m going to drink my coffee.

Rob’s Jobs Series: “The Launch”

In recent years, due to the economic downturn, I have found myself approached by dozens of good friends and acquaintances who have lost their jobs.  The reason they do so is because I am approachable, I know tens of thousands of people, and I have been running a successful business for more than a decade that, despite the downturn, is still showing profit.  To many of these folks’ surprise, my answers aren’t quick nor are they solutions unto themselves.  In an economy where even the most qualified prospects are out of work I cannot easily make a phone call and hook them up with a job.  My contributions to these friends in need have been stories of my success and examples of what has worked, leaving out what has not.  What follows is a customized retelling of Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare.

Stain on blog from Rob's coffee cupWhile aspiring in our twenties my wife, Nastassia, and I would walk our dogs one hour per night after we both got off of work.  These walks would take place in the rich neighborhood just across the boulevard and the conversations would consist of starting our own business and achieving our dreams.  After seven years at my employer, we felt it was time we could run our own similar business.  We planned my exit for mid-October 2001 and had only about a paycheck in the bank.  The world changed on September 11th but we kept on course.

We first set up a desk and a computer in the kitchen of our one bedroom apartment.  I then drove my car with no working air conditioner three hundred miles to an industry trade show.  Although this conference was very under-attended so close after the recent terrorist attacks, I was able to bond with one potential client and also show the elite in my industry that I could stand in the same room with them and look just as good in a suit and a smile.

This one relationship I made at the trade show provided the reference that I needed to land my first job.  This first job gave me the opportunity to perform obsessively well and nurture a client relationship that led to ten years and over one million dollars in income.

For Nastassia and me, two quotes remain a constant inspiration:

  • “If you reach for the stars, no matter how far you go, you will get further than most people.” ~ Raijko Bojic (Nastassia’s Dad)
  • “Keep. On. Plugging.” ~ Bob Holmes (Rob’s Dad)

I hope you will stay tuned and follow this series, as I believe my stories can help you in your journey as they continue to help us.

Now, I’m going to finish my coffee.

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