WASHINGTON — Federal authorities on Thursday said there is growing concern about the sophisticated nature of counterfeit Web sites, as they announced the seizure of 70 sites they allege were illegally selling thousands of fake products, including clothing, jewelry and other luxury goods, as part of an operation dubbed “Project Copy Cat.”
Counterfeits of several fashion brands were being sold on the illegal sites, including Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Tory Burch, Tiffany, True Religion and Burberry, according to U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement officials. A sample of the bogus fashion domain names seized included louisvuittononlineoutlet2012.net, tiffanyandcojewelrysale.net, usa-jeansoutlet.com, usa-truereligionjean.com, ukfashionoutletmall.com, chanel2outlet.com, tory-burchoutletsclearance.com and bpuma.com.
ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations-led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center spearheaded the operation in conjunction with field offices in Denver, El Paso, Houston, Newark and Salt Lake City. U.S. Attorneys’ offices in the Western and Southern Districts of Texas, and Districts of New Jersey, Colorado and Utah issued the warrants for the seizures.
Officials said the domains “closely mimicked legitimate Web sites selling authentic merchandise and duped consumers into unknowingly buying counterfeit goods.”
“This operation targeted criminals making a buck by trying to trick consumers into believing they were buying name-brand products from legitimate Web sites when in fact they were buying counterfeits from illegal but sophisticated imposter sites located overseas,” said ICE director John Morton. “The imposter sites were simply a fraud from start to finish and served no purpose other than to defraud and dupe unwary shoppers.”
An ICE spokeswoman said: “This is the next generation of IPR theft and consumer fraud. I think in some cases when we are talking about buying counterfeit goods online, the sites are not as sophisticated. There are misspellings of names or things that are more obvious indicators that you may be buying counterfeit products, in addition to the price being significantly lower. But in these cases, the sites are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing and prices are either at retail value or slightly lower, so legitimate consumers who are buying online think they are buying the right thing…at a valid site.”
She said that in many cases consumers never received the products from the operators and those that did received “cheap counterfeit products.”
Authorities said they uncovered a new, more sophisticated component of the fraudulent sites used to further fool consumers into believing they were making purchases from legitimate sites — the display of Secure Sockets Layer certificates that provide authentication for financial information. SSL certificates are meant to reassure consumers that they are sending sensitive financial information to the intended server and not an illegal server. In addition to providing authentication, legitimate SSL certificates also provide encryption that “enhances the security of credit card numbers, user names, passwords and other sensitive information,” authorities said.
The operation was part of a larger initiative known as “Operation In Our Sites,” launched two years ago. The seizure of 70 domain names brings the total number to 839. Of the previous 769 names seized, 229 have been forfeited to the U.S. government.
A seizure banner is posted on each Web domain name and public service announcements are linked from the seizure banner on each of the 229 forfeited Web sites, which are designed to educate the public about the economic impact of counterfeiting.