Internet firms are failing to tackle illicit trade on their networks
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May accused technology giants including Facebook, Google and Twitter of standing idly by while organised criminals use their platforms to facilitate illegal activities such as human trafficking, terrorism and the distribution of indecent images of children. Calling on investors to push for Silicon Valley firms to do more to prevent criminals exploiting their networks, May told an audience that these companies employ some of the best minds on the planet, and that it should not be too much of a stretch for some of them to focus their energies on quickly removing criminal content from their platforms, if not preventing it from appearing on them in the first place.
May has been criticising technology firms for months, taking a major swing at them for failing to take down extremist content and refusing to hand over encrypted messages sent by terrorist suspects after a string of Islamist attacks in the UK last year. While she is certainly right to do so, recent history has demonstrated that these companies have little interest in preventing criminals from using their platforms as safe spaces from which to conduct their illicit activities, and are only likely to take the problem seriously if they are forced to do so through tough new laws and the threat of meaningful financial penalties. Without these, social media platforms and encrypted messaging apps will continue to only pay lip service to eradicating criminal content from their networks, not least because doing so is an unprofitable use of their time and money. The fact that these companies have managed to fine tune their advertising algorithms to perfection but are still supposedly grappling with the issue of how to keep their platforms free from illegal content is no coincidence. If anything, the problem appears to be getting worse.
Illegal activities that were once restricted to the dark web are now routinely being reported on surface web platforms and applications. This past weekend, the Sunday Times told readers that drug dealers are using popular clothing app Depop to offer illegal substances to users as young as 13. Reporters from the paper discovered listings for marijuana, laughing gas and “pre-rolled spliffs” on the app. In October last year, a threat report from internet security firm IntSights revealed that online dealers were abandoning the dark web in favour of encrypted messaging apps after a number of hidden websites were closed down. Fearful that dark web marketplaces were not as anonymous as they had once thought, the report found vendors were increasingly offering their products in closed groups on apps such as Discord, Wickr, Telegram and WhatsApp, which are run by supposedly legitimate companies. More brazen dealers are peddling their wares on Facebook and Instagram, attempting to sell substances such as cocaine to schoolchildren.
Away from drugs, the Independent reported earlier this month that researchers from the University of Kent had discovered that illegal ivory is being openly sold on social media platforms and auction sites. In the US, human traffickers have used the likes of Facebook to groom young people into sex work, while people smugglers offering to transport migrants into Europe have regularly been caught advertising their services on social media platforms. The latter has been going for years, but despite repeated calls for a crackdown on the posting of such content, the problem persists pretty much unchanged. When it comes to online child sexual abuse, which should be relatively easy for tech firms to police, Silicon Valley’s lack of action has seen paedophiles flock to social media platforms in in their droves to meet and groom new victims. The UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse last week heard that the number of suspected online child sexual abuse cases referred to Scotland Yard has rocketed by 700% since 2014. Separately, a senior British police officer this month told ITV News that tech firms such as Facebook, Google and WhatsApp are “fundamentally enabling” paedophiles to sexually abuse children.
Echoing May’s comments more generally using slightly stronger language, billionaire investor George Soros also laid into the likes of Facebook and Google in Davos last week, labelling them a “menace” to society, and calling for more “stringent” regulation to control their activities. Warning tech giants that their “days are numbered”, Soros said: “The internet monopolies have neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions. That turns them into a menace and it falls to the regulatory authorities to protect society against them.” But while Soros might be keen on curtailing some of the freedoms these firms have enjoyed since they were founded, political leaders seem less inclined to take concrete action against them, instead preferring to sanctimoniously grandstand about their failure to act against the criminals who use their networks with near impunity. Internet firms have persistently demonstrated they have no real intention of making any meaningful effort to cleanse their platforms of illegal activity, no matter how many empty threats are thrown their way by lawmakers. As such, governments around the world have no choice but to legislate against them if they want to cut off the almost unfettered access drug dealers, people traffickers and paedophiles have to the numerous online tools that make their lives much easier.
Crooked vendors exploiting flaw in eBay’s feedback system to con buyers into purchasing bogus and dangerous items
Buyers on eBay are being duped into purchasing substandard and counterfeit products due to a flaw in the online auction platform’s seller feedback system, according to an investigation conducted by UK consumer group Which?
The watchdog found that dishonest vendors can take advantage of these flaws by linking positive reviews of genuine products manufactured by companies such as Apple and Samsung to fake and low-quality items.
Which? found that crooked sellers are able to link thousands of positive reviews to eBay listings they have nothing to do with.
The organisation discovered that real reviews can be associated with fake products that are potentially dangerous, such as counterfeit mobile phone chargers that can pose a fire risk.
Sellers are able to do this by using “product IDs” associated with genuine items when adding their products to eBay, subsequently benefitting from the positive reviews those items have attracted.
The system is intended to make the process of listing products on eBay quicker and easier by allowing sellers to pull information from similar items that have a linked product ID.
As part of its investigation, Which? purchased 20 bogus Apple and Samsung accessories such as chargers and USB cables that were supposed to be official and shared the same reviews as products manufactured by the two technology firms
Calling for online ecommerce platforms to be held accountable for flaws in their seller feedback systems that allow dishonest vendors to pull the wool over buyers’ eyes, Head of Home Products and Services at Which? Natalie Hitchins said: “Our investigation has uncovered yet another example of online reviews being manipulated to mislead people.
“eBay’s product review system is confusing for consumers and could even direct them towards counterfeit or dangerous products sold by unscrupulous sellers.
“Online reviews influence billions of pounds of consumer spending each year.
“The [UK Competition and Markets Authority] must now investigate how fake and misleading reviews are duping online shoppers, taking the strongest possible action against sites that fail to tackle the problem.”
Responding to the findings of Which?’s investigation eBay said in a statement: “The research does not fully consider that there are distinctions between product reviews (which provide buyers with a holistic review of the same product), and seller feedback (which can be used to see specific reviews of a seller’s performance and may reflect the item’s condition).”
Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that US politicians had called on lawmakers to hold ecommerce companies such as eBay and Amazon to account if they fail to prevent third-party vendors selling counterfeit or substandard products on their platforms.
Authorities in Dubai seize more than 29,000 fake watches worth more than $327 million
Law enforcement officers in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai have seized more than 29,000 fake watches that would have been worth more than AED1.2 billion ($327 million) had they been genuine.
An operation targeting the kingpins behind the counterfeiting conspiracy resulted in the arrest of two men in the Naif area of the city and the confiscation of a huge haul of bogus timepieces from the premises out of which they operated.
During a press conference in which he hailed the success of the operation, which was codenamed 60 Minutes, Brigadier Al Jalaf of Dubai Police praised the work of government agencies and the private sector firms whose products were faked during the conspiracy for their work in bringing the counterfeiting racket to an end.
In total, the operation resulted in the recovery of 29, 217 counterfeit watches that would have had a market value of AED1,239,240,450 billion had they not been fake.
Describing how the investigation that led to the arrest of the suspects began after police received a tip-off, Jalaf said: “Upon receiving a tip from a reliable source on some illegal business promoting and selling counterfeit goods in Naif area, our team started investigating the case to pinpoint the suspects and locate their whereabouts.
“Soon after, the Crime Analysis Centre at Dubai Police identified two suspects of Asian nationality who have criminal records and located two apartments where they stored the counterfeit goods.”
Urging members of the public to report counterfeit products, Jalaf went on to say: “Our strategic partners from government departments and private companies and their support, have always been serving the security and economic march of the emirate.”
On Twitter, Dubai Police yesterday posted dramatic video footage of the moment armed officers raided the apartment at which the counterfeiters stored their bogus products.
The clip also included images of scores of bags containing many thousands of counterfeit timepieces, many of which carried the branding of major luxury watchmakers.
It is said that the counterfeiters used the flat as base from which to sell their fake wristwatches to both individual buyers and business customers.
The suspects, who were identified by police as “two Asian men”, will likely be jailed and face a fine of up to AED50,000.
The men were said to have been selling watches that would have been worth AED100,000 if they were real for AED20,000.
Crackdown on NBA counterfeiters in Chicago results in seizure of almost 127,000 bogus items worth over $2.5 million
US customs officers have confiscated nearly 127,000 counterfeit National Basketball Association (NBA)-related items that would have been worth over $2.5 million had they been genuine.
During a six-day operation launched in the lead-up to the NBA All-Star Weekend, which took place in Chicago earlier this month, agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit seized a huge quality of bogus trademarked sports merchandise, including hats and shirts, as well as fake NBA All-Star Game tickets.
The counterfeit products were confiscated from businesses and street vendors, the agency said.
Commenting on the success of the operation, James Gibbons, Special Agent in Charge of HSI Chicago, said: “HSI and its law enforcement partners are committed to keeping counterfeiters from deceiving unsuspecting fans at major sporting events, such as the NBA All-Star Game.
“We appreciate this collaboration with the NBA to bring awareness to a crime that costs U.S. businesses billions of dollars each year and exploits consumers, who unknowingly spend their hard-earned money on second-rate memorabilia.”
Last May, ICE warned members of the public to beware of purchasing counterfeit sports apparel and tickets to games and other events linked to the NBA Finals in San Francisco.
In a statement, the agency said sports fans should stay vigilant for counterfeit jerseys, ball caps, t-shirts, jackets and other souvenirs.
Last September, officers from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at Los Angeles International Airport found 28 fake NBA championship rings that would have been worth some $560,000 had they been genuine.
At the end of January, CBP and ICE revealed they had seized 176,000 counterfeit sports-related items that would have been worth $123 million if sold at their manufacturer’s suggested retail price.
The items were confiscated as part of Operation Team Player, an ongoing effort to tackle the illegal importation and distribution of fake sports merchandise, and were seized from retail outlets, flea markets and street vendors.
Speaking at the time, NFL Vice President of Legal Affairs Dolores DiBella said: “Operation Team Player remains one of the most important national initiatives for protecting sports fans from the sale of counterfeit products and counterfeit tickets.
“The joint efforts of the NFL, the IPR Centre, HSI, CBP, and Miami area law enforcement have helped ensure that Super Bowl LIV remains an authentic and outstanding experience for our fans.”
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