COVID-19 and overwhelming amounts of counterfeits online: What businesses should do — right away!

Written by Xuan Nguyen

 

According to an update from the World Health Organization (WHO), by 15 April 2020 the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) had already infected 1 918 138 people in 213 countries, territories and areas, resulting in 123 126 deaths. Various governmental interventions have been applied, including border closures, strict quarantines, travel bans, and the forced closure of many businesses. 

It is expected that a deep economic crisis will follow the pandemic (which is still evolving and unpredictable). So far a dramatic slump in economic activities has been witnessed, affecting not only the supply chain (production of goods and services) but also demand (consumption and investment). Many people are forced to stay at home, factories have stopped operating, restaurants, shops and public places are closed. Consumers are being driven toward online shopping marketplaces. While major parts of the world, including, Europe, the USA and a lot of Asia, are struggling to fight against the crisis, in China the situation is now apparently under control and factories are gradually returning to normal.

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

The current situation has also created fertile ground for the sale of counterfeit goods online, especially in sudden upsurge sectors such as pharmaceuticals and medical devices. According to Interpol, during one week of action (3–10 March 2020), authorities in 90 participating countries seized more than 4.4 million units of illicit pharmaceuticals, more than 37 000 unauthorised and counterfeit medical devices, and closed down more than 2 500 web links, including websites, social media pages, online marketplaces and online adverts for illicit pharmaceuticals[1].

In South-East Asia all 10 countries have reported a substantive number of COVID-19 cases. Since there was already a high number of local counterfeit manufacturers available, and a significant trade exchange with nearby China, the region is very high risk in terms of counterfeits invading the market. Recently, Thai police seized 45 000 fake COVID-19 test kits, 350 000 medical masks, and 1 200 infrared thermometers that were smuggled into the country by two Chinese men. All products sold online claiming to be COVID-19 test kits at the moment are fake, according to the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA)[2].  Vietnamese authorities also found that a company in Vietnam had been making masks out of toilet paper amid the coronavirus outbreak and skyrocketing demand[3].

These figures are just the tip of the iceberg. There are overwhelming numbers of counterfeit products. This article will discuss how counterfeits are being fueled by an online market and what the brand owner should do to mitigate the impact.

Why have counterfeits surged in the shadow of the COVID-19 outbreak?

  • The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a spike in demand for essential products, such as personal protective devices (facemasks, hand sanitizers and antiviral medication), vitamins, pharmaceuticals, foods and beverages, as well as non-essential products, such as cosmetics and personal care items, household products, electronics, work-from-home tools, entertainment technology and children’s toys. Meanwhile, the majority of factories are being shut down, causing the shortage of supplies of genuine products. ‘In moments of high demand and rushed buying decisions, counterfeiters can jump on the opportunity and sway buyers in their direction[4].’
  • People are shopping online much more than ever. According to analysis by ACI Worldwide, ‘The COVID-19 crisis is driving the global growth of e-commerce sales, with millions of consumers worldwide in quarantine shopping for goods, services and entertainment online. Transaction volumes in most retail sectors have seen a 74 percent rise in March compared to the same period last year.’ The dark side of this phenomenon is that people can be more easily tricked. Many sellers use photos of genuine products while offering extremely low prices to attract online buyers during a time of crisis, and then provide fake products to consumers. It can also create a backlash for brand owners, leading consumers to mistakenly believe the product quality is very low and to lose interest in the brand.
  • The crisis has caused an immediate reduction in the income of many people across the globe, and consumers are looking for the cheapest possible versions of goods because of their reduced budgets. While the pandemic is still evolving, millions of people have lost their jobs following business restrictions and closures. According to a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), if we are experiencing a ‘“High” scenario where COVID-19 has serious disruptive effects, reducing GDP growth by around 8 percent: Global unemployment would increase by 24.7 million, with an uncertainty ranging from 13 million to 36 million[5].’ Given the current environment of uncertainty and fear, and the real threat of significant declines in income, consumers in many economies are unable to purchase branded goods and services as before; buying cheap counterfeit products can be a tempting option.
  • Many counterfeit suppliers are concentrated in China where the situation is under control and factories have gone back to their normal operations. This means counterfeiters may be in a better position to jump onto the upsurge in demand before legitimate sellers can reopen production. Amid the panic of the crisis, a lot of companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are concentrating on solving critical issues such as declines in revenue, insolvencies and job cuts, rather than keeping an eye on monitoring the marketplaces for fakes. As a result of the lack of the legitimate owners’ attention, counterfeiters can more easily flood the market with fakes.
  • Customs checks, market investigations, and raid and seize activities have been reduced following social distancing and safety measures. In the same way as many other public services during this health crisis, officers involved with anti-counterfeiting activities have been physically limited to avoid the risk of infection. This means that infringers have more opportunity to take a free ride on the market.

What should brand owners do?

During volatile market conditions and the resulting increase in online shopping, consumers easily become targets for counterfeiters. Brand owners need to stay on top of monitoring and combating fakes more than ever. Otherwise, they may lose sales to counterfeiters.

  • Focus on monitoring e-commerce and social media platforms and proactively communicate with the customers. During the current social distancing measures and travel bans, a majority of customers has been using the internet for buying stuff instead of shopping physically, you need to keep a close eye to the net to protect your revenue and maintain safe channels for your business during the crisis, and after it ends. When some sectors have a spike in demand while genuine supply chains are being disturbed, fakes become a more serious issue. Brand owners should be more protective about their communications with their consumers, guiding them to available supply channels with authentic products and warning them about fakes.
  • Conduct an investigation and gather facts. Don’t make a groundless claim, it will cost you both time and money. Once you have found a suspected infringement on the internet, the first step is to quickly collect evidence on the infringer, e.g. basic information (name, address, other contact details, the scale of their business and the origin of their products).
  • Take-down Notices and Warning Letters: Utilise the available complaint functions on the e-commerce platforms and encourage social media operators to quickly take down infringing products. In the meantime, as a legitimate brand owner, you can also consider sending Warning Letters to the counterfeiter to ask them to stop their illegal activities.
  • Inform the competent authorities: In South-East Asian countries, local governments have recently made many efforts and improvements in combating online counterfeits. Brand owners can find available complaint tools — such as hotlines, emails or complaint submissions on the websites of customs, market police departments and other relevant national bodies — to promptly notify the authorities.
  • Seek advice from local IP experts. In critical cases, companies are usually advised to consult with local experts that are familiar with infringement cases and have close relations with enforcement bodies such as customs, investigators and the police. It is worth noting that many counterfeits are advertised in local languages or posted on local websites, so monitoring using detection software or search tools (usually in Roman characters) doesn’t work effectively.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Our lives, and the way we do business, have changed in recent weeks. Brand owners should swiftly adapt to the new situation to protect their businesses against counterfeiters. Neglecting this during the crisis might cost you more than you imagine, i.e. from losing your faithful customers to losing your entire share of the market. Keeping your company safe amid the chaos, and getting ready for normal business to resume, is the only way to retain both your revenue and your reputation.

[1] https://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-Events/News/2020/Global-operation-sees-a-rise-in-fake-medical-products-related-to-COVID-19

[2] https://thethaiger.com/coronavirus/big-arrest-on-price-gouging-of-covid-19-safety-gear-and-fake-test-kits

[3] https://www.insider.com/vietnam-company-using-toilet-paper-for-coronavirus-masks-faces-penalty-2020-2

[4] https://www.redpoints.com/pdfs/market-research-impact-of-covid-19-on-ecommerce-sales/?utm_campaign=HS284-market-research-survey-impact-of-covid-9-on-ecommerce-sales&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=84691783&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_KXO0X8sOU11ZaL9gXi53LxFBQjYdtj-ZtCHwLlocKYxHxgibn05yKKsXyfyIzVAccGKAF&utm_content=84691783&utm_source=hs_automation

[5] https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_738753.pdf

Online IP Infringement in South-East Asia: How to protect your business

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WRITTEN BY XUAN NGUYEN

 

The South-East Asian internet economy has witnessed a striking increase

According to the latest report by Google, Temasek and Bain & Company, the number of internet users in South-East Asia (SEA) has increased rapidly, reaching 360 million in 2019 — 100 million more than in 2015. Powered by rapid adoption and changing consumer preferences, the South-East Asian internet economy has leapt nearly 40 % from last year to exceed USD 100 billion, and is on track to hit USD 300 billion in 2025. The region has seen booming development, especially in the e-commerce sector. In 2015, 49 million people bought or sold items online. Today, that number has tripled to 150 million.[1]

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

The internet is fueling a dramatic rise in counterfeit and pirated products

It is obvious that the internet has brought enormous opportunities for companies, especially Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) to develop and expand their business internationally. However, on the other hand, digitalisation also creates fertile ground for online intellectual property (IP) infringement, such as counterfeiting products, pirated goods, cybersquatting, stolen trade secrets, etc. As a result, it has caused various negative impacts on the sales, profits and reputations of affected companies as well as having broader adverse effects on the economy and public health, safety and security.

‘The Economic Impacts of Counterfeiting and Piracy’ report from Frontier Economics pointed out that the estimated value of total counterfeit and pirated goods in the world was USD 923 billion – 1.13 trillion in 2013 and is forecasted to reach an astounding USD 1.90 – 2.81 trillion in 2022.[2]

As it is now easier for everyone to buy and sell goods online, fake and pirated products are booming in SEA, across various e-commerce platforms, social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok) and a number of local websites. Consumers are offered a wide variety of counterfeit and pirated products. These items can be labelled with a counterfeited trade mark or just replicate the appearance of the original goods, and they are sold at any price-scale. Products majorly exposed to online counterfeiting are fashion retail, electronics, perfume and cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, FMCG, baby products, alcohol and automotive.[3] The origin of the fake products being sold in SEA varies, they can be produced locally or imported from  other countries notorious for manufacturing counterfeits, such as China, India and Turkey.

Online counterfeit and pirated goods have caused serious damage to the sales and profits of IP owners, jeopardised brand reputations and rendered the consumer less interested in authentic products. Vendors often use pictures of the original goods to attract consumers and then provide a counterfeit product. Ultimately, customers start to lose interest in affected brands.

An even more serious concern is connected with the use of fake products in the pharmaceutical, chemical, foods and beverages sectors. These products are not subject to controls like the original ones, and can seriously affect the consumers’ health.

How to combat online infringement

Online IP infringement is growing exponentially in SEA, for many reasons. IP rights are territorial, however online IP infringement is borderless. ‘While there is a degree of harmonization of the laws and regulations governing IP rights and their enforcement, these are not unified. Varying laws and practices in different jurisdictions make it difficult to navigate the legal landscape, fuelling legal uncertainty about outcomes.’[4] In any jurisdiction, the internet itself makes it harder to track down infringers effectively and stop them, but it is particularly difficult in SEA. The effectiveness of IP enforcement in the region is still a major concern. As a result, online trading is quickly becoming more and more attractive for IP infringers as they are less likely to be caught in SEA. In addition, although laws and regulations in South-East Asian countries generally prohibit the sale of counterfeit and pirated products, they do not specifically deter the sale of these products online. There is a lack of effective laws against online IP infringement, and the authorities have little experience in dealing with it.

The majority of the online trade in counterfeit products and pirated goods is at the retail scale, it means there is a huge number of infringers that companies must monitor in order to combat them. The internet makes it easy for anyone to set up a new online business. This means that even if  the culprits agree to stop their infringing actions after receiving a warning from the IP owner, e-commerce operators or enforcement authorities, it is still possible that they will quickly set up a new shop to continue with the illegal selling.

However, taking no action is inadvisable for companies seeking to safeguard their business in SEA. If your products have been infringed and sold in various places, a ‘no actions’ strategy will have a negative impact on your global business and jeoparadise your reputation.

To protect IP effectively, a company should build up a proactive and multi-faceted strategy to act swiftly and effectively against online infringers. The following options can be considered.

  • Actively monitor the online marketplace, and shopping and social media platforms, to identify infringement: Companies can do this by themselves or hire service companies with expertise in the field. In addition, today there are many advanced technological tools for searching and detecting sources of IP violation.
  • Conduct an investigation and gather facts: Don’t make a groundless claim, it will cost you both time and money. Once you have found a suspected infringement on the internet, the first step is to collect evidence on the infringer, e.g. basic information (name, address, other contact details, the scale of their business and the origin of their products).
  • Take-down Notices and Warning Letters: The majority of online infringers in SEA are small businesses, therefore sending a Warning Letter to online infringers has often proved to be a time- and cost-effective option. Also, submitting a Take-down Notice and Infringement Complaint to the e-commerce platform and social media operators can be another effective approach. Read and understand the IP policy against online infringment of each platform so that you can provide the appropriate information and documents as required to ensure the take-down is fast and effective.
  • Work with local enforcement agencies: Companies should be well prepared, with at least a basic understanding of the enforcement agencies available in each country in SEA and of how companies are eligible to use the enforcement options in the jurisdiction. It is worth noting that to enforce your rights in SEA, you are usually required to register your IP with the IP office of the country where you seek enforcement. Raid actions to seize infringing products, filing a claim to a court, or using customs to block counterfeit and pirated goods are also enforcement options that companies may consider in specific cases.
  • Seek advice from local experts: There are still many differences between IP laws and practices between the EU and SEA, and even within SEA inconsistencies abound. As many of the counterfeit and pirated products for sale are advertised in local languages or posted on local websites, monitoring by detection software or searching tools (usually in Roman characters) doesn’t work effectively. Therefore, companies should always seek advice from local experts who are familiar with local cases of infringement and who have close relations with enforcement bodies such as the courts, police and customs authorities.

SEA is a promising destination to expand your business in. However, there are still major concerns there relating to IP protection, especially in the digital era. European companies should be aware of the risks and prepare their IP strategy before going abroad. A proactive and well-prepared IP protection programme will secure sustainable business growth in SEA.

By Xuan Nguyen – Project Officer, South-East Asia IPR SME Helpdek

[1] e-Conomy SEA 2019: https://www.bain.com/insights/e-conomy-sea-2019/

[2] ‘The Economic Impacts of Counterfeiting and Piracy’ by Frontier Economics: https://www.inta.org/Communications/Documents/2017_Frontier_Report.pdf

[3] Industries exposed to online counterfeiting: https://www.group-ib.com/brandprotection/anticounterfeiting.html

[4] ‘IP Infringement Online: the dark side of digital’: https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2011/02/article_0007.html

 

Alibaba – Who is responsible for keeping out the counterfeits?

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Alibaba_Chinese_logoChinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is back in the news this week, but with less fanfare than its biggest-IPO-in-history success story back in September. It has been criticised in a report from the State Administration of Industry & Commerce (SAIC) over hosting the sale of counterfeits, among other illegal trading issues. Data from the SAIC suggests 63% of listed brand goods on the site are not genuine – no insignificant number to be sure. This has kicked-off a battle between the SAIC and Alibaba, with counter-statements from the company and a number of accounts of alleged infringements emerging from both sides.

Continue reading “Alibaba – Who is responsible for keeping out the counterfeits?” »

Something to wine about….

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China’s taste for Western wine has taken-off dramatically in the last decade, with EU wine exports to China worth over 700 million Euros in 2012 – more than ten times the export value of 2006. Unfortunately, with the rise in demand for foreign wine there has also been an unprecedented surge in counterfeits.

Continue reading “Something to wine about….” »