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.
As I regularly search for shows on my TiVo using keywords that relate to my interests and work, I ran across a rerun of ‘Swift Justice with Nancy Grace‘ that originally aired on 2/28/11 entitled “An online rip-off; pit bull puppies”. This was caught in my filter because the word ‘knockoff’ was in the show’s description. In this episode, the first case was of a woman who had purchased a pair of Coach boots from a website buymerchant.com. Upon receipt of the boots, the Plaintiff stated that she believed they were counterfeit and was entitled to a refund of $174 USD. Whether the goods in this case were actually counterfeit is actually not even relevant to what I’m about to share. What followed was some of the most irresponsible judiciary-slash-journalistic behavior I have ever seen.
Grace first examines the boots saying, “If these are fake, I’ll buy ’em! I’m all about fakes!” She then hollers backstage, “Hey, bring me out my my ‘Frauda’!” She giggled and looked back at the camera explaining, “My fake Prada. I love it.” As she brings the conversation back to the case on hand, she turns to the Plaintiff and uttered in a snarky drawl, “So… you don’t like fakes?”
After picking up my jaw from the atop my Birkenstock I witness Grace call in her ‘expert’ to authenticate the boots. This guy’s qualifications were that he was a former employee at a Coach store. Wait, it gets better. As he makes his unconvincing case, Grace barks again and looks offstage, “Hey, bring me back my fake!” Then she asks her expert to authenticate her ‘Frauda’. He explains to her that it is counterfeit and that a real handbag of this type is of higher quality and would retail for about $1,500 USD. Then Grace starts howling like a preacher with a bellyache with, “Fifteen… hundred… dollars?!?!?! Do you know how long I’ve had this thing? Five years. That’s a good quality bag!” Just as I did, you are probably asking if this idiot actually admitted to purchasing illegal goods, defend it and then promote the behavior from her bench on national television. Yes. She did. You can witness an excerpt of the event for yourself by clicking this link here: http://www.swiftjustice.com/case_files/2011-02-28
While much of the civilized world is trying to discourage this type of contraband activity, we have a nitwit like this adjudicating cases with her own television show, and doling out legal advice on CNN. While Nancy Grace is hosting ‘Swift Justice’, what she really needs is a swift kick in the rear end.
Corporate policy enforcement is often paradoxical. The two faces of humanity clash in the office. One is to compete for first place while the other appears to try to help others. As someone who is commissioned to protect specific brands from being tarnished, I find myself in a position to tangentially help brands with whom I do not work. I choose to do so out of goodwill. I find that the practice of selflessness is something that brings me happiness.
The competition method is to make it so difficult for criminals to counterfeit your brand that they counterfeit others brands instead. This is not terrible, but also not constructive outside the shareholder meetings. In other words, the end result is more money. Nothing else. That may be enough for some, but others see there is a bigger picture.
I was at a policy roundtable the other day and, when I expressed this concept, another participant disagreed. His brilliant example was neighborhood watch. He told me that the purpose of neighborhood watch is to cause the burglars to go to your neighbor’s house instead of yours. I had to turn around to see if I was on candid camera. Really, dude? How much was your bill from law school? Was there an ethics class or two? Do they have a refund policy? Remind me not to move to his neighborhood. Neighborhood watch was set up to help neighbors protect each other. This actually is a great example of the ‘Whole World’ approach.
I believe brands need to work more with each other as a policy. Organizations like the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition are set up to assist brands in helping one another. This great organization, in fact, is celebrating their 30th Anniversary this year.
The question I pose is this: Is it morally wrong to exclaim the dangers of counterfeiting professing the Whole World message while practicing the Competition method?
I say it is. Helping your neighbor is its own reward.
Now, I’m going to finish my coffee.
I was exploring websites of other investigators the other day and located one whose site was offering fake Rolex watches for $49. Yes, that’s right. It is not likely that his intention was to break the law, but that he is missing basic knowledge of how web advertising works. When I first designed my own blog a few years back, the idea of adding a revenue stream to cheapen the credibility of my site with Google ads was a thought that crossed my mind. Then it kept walking. Google ads are placed on a site based on the keyword content. Therefore any site that is part of the Google ad program that discusses counterfeit goods will have advertisements for counterfeit goods placed on it. It is not rocket science. I am just surprised to see someone in my line of work doing this. I am not naming the investigator, as my purpose is to bring awareness to the danger of using Google ads on any site fighting the sale of fakes. Likewise, his knowledge of the online space is probably not worth the paper on which his business card is printed. Don’t be this guy.
Now I’m going to finish my coffee.
Even only a year ago, spam primarily consisted only of unwanted email in your inbox. But now as blogs become more popular, services such as Google Reader make it easy for people to aggregate those blog feeds (commonly RSS and Atom) into your inboxes.
Along with feeds/blogs to which you specifically subscribe, one can also subscribe to keywords and topics known as ‘tags’. Replica watch spammers constantly have to innovate ways to make it to your computer without getting caught in your spam filters. This is also a method some call ‘indirection’ which takes a web surfer to a page that acts as a placeholder prior to linking them to the actual website selling the goods. This is a method to evade security features built into most popular browsers. The image on the right is an example of what such an ad may look like.
Folks, if there is money in selling replicas, bad guys are going to figure out a way to sell them. They key is staying one step ahead. The only way to do that is to hire a good team.
Now I’m going to finish my coffee.