12 526 websites taken down and 127 365 counterfeit products worth EUR 3.8 million seized.
Law enforcement agencies from 27 countries* participated in the 13th edition of Operation In Our Sites, a Europol-coordinated operation to take down websites offering counterfeit goods or involved in online piracy. The recurring operation, which is supported by Eurojust and INTERPOL, targets, investigates and seizes websites hosting a variety of illicit content. The main issues continue to be intellectual property infringement on trademarks, as well as on copyrighted content available on internet protocol television (IPTV) and movie streaming services, peer-to-peer sharing platforms and hosting websites. Key findings of the operation that took place from 1 May to 14 November also show that more counterfeit products are being assembled within the European Union’s borders and that intellectual property crime is closely intertwined with serious and organised crime.
As of this year’s Cyber Monday, law enforcement agencies across several continents have taken down 12 526 websites, disconnected 32 servers used to distribute and host illegal content for 2 294 television channels and shut down 15 online shops selling counterfeit products on social media sites. In the physical realm, investigators seized 127 365 counterfeit products such as clothes, watches, shoes, accessories, perfumes, electronics and phone cases worth more than EUR 3.8 million.
Criminals living lavish lifestyles
In the course of the operation, 10 search warrants were issued and 14 people were detained or formally accused of intellectual property crimes. In one specific action, Spanish Police arrested four people and one person was formally charged. According to preliminary investigative results, the prime suspect in this investigation was earning up to EUR 150 000 a month and living a lavish lifestyle in a luxury house, driving expensive cars and embarking on extravagant vacations all over the world. The criminal network dedicated itself to large-scale marketing and distribution of pirated audio-visual content on the internet. As part of the operation, Spanish police disconnected 32 servers hosting the illicit content and seized cash, documents and two luxury vehicles.
The Bulgarian Cybercrime Unit investigated a criminal network using Facebook accounts and websites to sell counterfeit clothes imitating well-known brands. In a coordinated action, a number of house searches were conducted and a workshop with sewing and embossing machines was discovered. Authorities seized fake stickers, the labels of well-known trademarks, unbranded articles ready to be processed, 600 counterfeit articles worth EUR 35 000 and an illegally possessed firearm.
These discoveries show once more that the production of counterfeit products increasingly takes place within the European Union. Additionally, it emphasises the growing overlap of intellectual property crimes with tax evasion and money laundering. The high-profit nature of the criminal activities also reaffirms the importance of law enforcement in conducting financial investigations and asset recovery concurrently.
Consumers to be cautious when shopping online
The results of this operation act as a reminder to be extra cautious when shopping online to avoid buying counterfeit products through illicit platforms. Not only can such illicit products present serious health and safety risks to consumers, but the proceeds can also serve criminal networks involved in other forms of crime.
The internet offers these criminals a certain level of anonymity and the possibility of covering their tracks. Its borderless nature facilitates criminal activities that largely take place at an international level. A domain, an IP address or a server may be registered in one country, the bank account for payments in another, while packages are sent from yet another country. This is often being orchestrated by criminals who are not located in any of these jurisdictions.
Organised crime groups frequently use established social media platforms to promote their websites and guide potential consumers to online sales platforms. Websites offering illicit products may also profit from advertisements. Occasionally, even prestigious brands may accidentally publish their ads on such domains, which might cause reputational harm and loss of investment. In certain cases the advertisements placed on commercial platforms (which are infringing intellectual property rights) may expose the consumer to malware or spyware, which is another reason to be extra careful and check Europol’s advice when shopping online.
Headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, Europol supports the 27 EU Member States in their fight against terrorism, cybercrime and other serious and organised forms of crime. We also work with many non-EU partner states and international organisations. From its various threat assessments to its intelligence-gathering and operational activities, Europol has the tools and resources it needs to do its part in making Europe safer.
*Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo**, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States
**This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.
Source – Europol