Cybersquatting in South-East Asia: What’s happening now?

Quote

WRITTEN BY XUAN NGUYEN

 

Facts and trends

In 2005, when eBay Inc. started promoting their services online in Vietnam, they found that the domain name ebay.com.vn had already been registered by a Vietnamese company in 2003. Between 2005 and 2007 the company, with help of a team of local lawyers, filed three complaints to the Vietnam Internet Network Information Center (VNNIC) asking for the domain name ebay.com.vn to be canceled as it was an infringement of their trade mark. The ‘eBay’ trade mark was registered in Vietnam in 2002. In 2007 eBay’s regional director in South-East Asia became directly involved in pursuing the complaint to try to settle the case. Despite all these efforts, the disputed domain name is still owned by the Vietnamese company[1].

Photo source: https://pixabay.com/

Photo source: https://pixabay.com/

This is not the only case like this, in 2014 a Korean individual registered the domain name instagram.com.ph and two years later she also registered the domain name instagram.ph. These domain names led to pages displaying links to other websites, including ‘Log In Instagram’ and ‘Create Instagram’ or ‘Create an Instagram Account’ and ‘Free Download Instagram APP’. The domain name instagram.com.ph was previously offered for sale on a broker’s website for USD 5 000 while the disputed domain name instagram.ph was displayed on another broker’s website with the message ‘This domain is for sale’ and a system was provided for submitting an offer. Instagram, LLC decided to file a complaint with the Arbitration and Mediation Center of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 2018 and two months later the Administrative Panel assigned the domain names to Instagram[2].

According to a new press release from Business Insider[3], ‘South-East Asian countries outdo most other emerging market regions in the 11th annual Agility Emerging Markets Logistics Index, a broad gauge of competitiveness based on logistics strength and business fundamentals. Business-friendly conditions and core strengths position several South-East Asian countries near the top of the Index, behind giants China (1) and India (2).’ Meanwhile, cybersquatting (also known as domain squatting) has become a critical concern for many companies doing business in this region.

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

While setting up businesses in the region, many companies realise that their names or trade marks, in combination with country code top-level domain (ccTLD) suffixes (such as .vn, .id, .th, .sg, etc.), have been previously registered by third parties (cybersquatters).

Cybersquatters often purchase domain names in the hope of selling them to the trade mark owners at an inflated price. The cybersquatters also use the domain names to sell counterfeit products or direct users to their own websites (often but not always containing some sort of illicit content, from pornography to gambling, etc.). Reclaiming the disputed domain name is not always easy, it is a time- and money- consuming process. There are also cases when it isn’t possible to get your domain name back (for example the case of ebay.com.vn in Vietnam).

According to the Domain Name Dispute Statistics from the WIPO, Vietnam (393 cases), Indonesia (263 cases), Thailand (244 cases), Singapore (153 cases), Malaysia (149 cases) and the Philippines (120 cases) are the countries where there are high numbers of respondents involving domain name disputes in the South-East Asian region[4].

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have fueled an increase in cybercrime. ‘As much of the world has been working from home, businesses and consumers are relying heavily on the Internet and related IT resources — whether to engage in their “day jobs”, to shop online, or to inform themselves on staying safe in the current pandemic. Many domain name registration authorities have even reported an increase in the number of domain names registered. These may be used for news/information sites, or even to provide new business offerings, but much like social media platforms, are also being used to spread misinformation and to engage in illegal and fraudulent activities[5].’

How do I protect my domain name from cybersquatting?

Here are some tips for companies to safeguard themselves against cybersquatting while doing business in South-East Asia:

  • Register your domain names in potential future markets. As domain names are assigned based on a ‘first come, first served’ basis (the first-to-file rule), invest some money in registering your domain name at an early stage to reserve your right to it. This is much cheaper than the litigation option.
  • Register your trade mark in potential future markets. Cybersquatting generally involves the bad faith registration of another’s trade mark as a domain name. Therefore, having your trade mark registered in a country is an essential step enabling you to proceed with a request for the cancelation of a disputed domain name.
  • Online monitoring to detect cybersquatting. You should proactively conduct online monitoring activities or hire service companies with expertise in the field. In fact, sometimes cybersquatters are interested in attracting people to their (illicit) businesses by riding on your reputation. This can be detrimental to the image of your company and, on a general level, makes it harder for people to find you on the web. Some things you should check regularly are:

    Photo source: https://pixabay.com

    Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Variations of your domain name. Variations may consist of adding a hyphen if the domain is made up of more than one word, for example race-horsing.com vs racehorsing.com or using the singular and plural versions of your domain, such as product.com vs products.com. Typosquatting (involving mistypes or misspellings of your domain name) is also a popular form of cybersquatting. For example, the disputed domain name ercisson.net registered with Above.com is virtually similar to ‘ericsson’ mark of the Ericsson company (the letters ‘i’ and ‘c’ are reversed)[6].

Combination of additional words. The cybersquatter may combine your trade mark or service mark with relevant products or services in either English or a local language. For example, a Guangdong-based company registered ‘googlelocal.cn’ and ‘googlelocal.com.cn’ in March 2004[7], and a Vietnamese individual registered the domain name quangcaogoogle.com (‘quang cao’ is a Vietnamese phrase meaning ‘advertising’)[8].

More than one extension. There are some common versions of generic top-level domains (gTLDs) such as .com, .net, and .biz, etc. In South-East Asia, popular ccTLDs in some countries are .vn and .com.vn (for Vietnam), .co.th and .net.th (for Thailand), .sg and .com.sg (for Singapore), and .id and .co.id (for Indonesia), etc. Check all possible extensions of your domain name and do not neglect any of them.

What do I do if my domain name is taken?

In the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP[9]) adopted by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the basic requirements for requesting a cancellation or transfer of a domain name are:

  1. The domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trade mark or service mark for which someone holds the rights;
  2. The other party have no rights or legitimate interests in the domain name;
  3. The domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.

Many dispute resolution agencies use these principles as a rule of thumb to settle domain disputes. In light of the above, if you find out that someone has registered a domain name to reap benefits from your reputation, you can consider taking the following steps:

  • Collect evidence of the bad faith registration and use. As a general rule, firstly check to see if the domain name takes you to a website (sometimes no website is found). If there is a real site, these questions arise:

– Is there any offer pertaining to reselling, renting, or transferring the domain name?

– Does the website offer any products or services similar or identical to yours for sale?

– Are there any links to other sites?

Remember to save all of the evidence that you find at the investigation stage because the registrant may change any of the content displayed at any time, especially if they notice that a potential dispute is in the offing.

  • Contact the domain-name registrant and start a discussion. Before jumping to any conclusions, contact the registrant to find out if there is any reasonable explanation for the use of the domain name or if there is a way to reach an agreement with them to obtain the transfer of the domain name.
  • Bringing the dispute to arbitration. If negotiation or conciliation with the registrant doesn’t work out, you can proceed with arbitration for the cases detailed below.

Regarding gTLDs such as .com, .asia, .biz, .info, .net, .org, etc., complaints can be submitted to any of the dispute resolution service providers approved by ICANN under the UDRP proceedings. The WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center is considered as one of the most time- and cost-efficient mechanisms for resolving internet domain name disputes.

In addition to the above, the WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center currently also provides domain name dispute resolution services for 76 ccTLDs (including two ASEAN members, Laos and the Philippines). In other words, if there is a dispute related to ccTLDs in Laos or the Philippines, the claim can be brought before an arbitration process initiated by the WIPO.

For Singapore, ccTLDs claims can be submitted to the Singapore Mediation Centre, which uses the Singapore Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy to settle the case. In Malaysia, the complaint can be brought to the Asian International Arbitration Centre, the dispute resolution provider authorised by the Malaysian Network Information Centre (MYNIC).

  • Taking action through the administrative route or initiating a civil lawsuit at a court. Not all ASEAN countries offer domain name arbitration (the countries mentioned above are exceptions), therefore the complainant can consider proceeding with an administrative action or file a lawsuit with the competent court. If you have to use these routes, contacting and getting advice from a local expert is advisable.

 

The South-East Asia IPR SME Helpdesk is an EU initiative that provides free, practical IPR advice to European SMEs in South-East Asia. EU companies can send questions to question@southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu and receive a reply within three working days.

[1] https://www.vnnic.vn/tranhchaptenmien/thongke/tranh-ch%E1%BA%A5p-li%C3%AAn-quan-%C4%91%E1%BA%BFn-t%C3%AAn-mi%E1%BB%81n-ebaycomvn

[2] https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/decisions/text/2018/dph2018-0002.html

[3] https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/southeast-asian-countries-lead-agility-emerging-markets-index-1028888255#

[4] https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/statistics/countries.jsp?party=R

[5] https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/news/2020/cybersquatting_covid19.html

[6] https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/decisions/text/2010/d2010-0566.html

[7] http://www.pin-dao.com/news5.htm

[8] https://www.vnnic.vn/tranhchaptenmien/thongke/google-v%C3%A0-t%C3%AAn-mi%E1%BB%81n-quangcaogooglecom

[9] https://www.icann.org/resources/pages/policy-2012-02-25-en

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