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The likes of Amazon and eBay will only take on counterfeiters if forced to do so

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real action against counterfeiters

At the beginning of March, the owner of a small US business accused online retail behemoth Amazon of profiting from the sale of cheap Chinese counterfeits. In a blog post on his company’s website, Elevation Lab founder Casey Hopkins, whose firm makes an under-desk mount for headphones, called out Amazon for failing to do enough to prevent inferior-quality knock-offs being listed for sale on its platform. Hopkins outlined how an anonymous manufacturer in China was able to reverse engineer his under-desk headphone mount and offer it for sale on Amazon at a reduced price, depriving his company of sales, and resulting in buyers receiving substandard products. Amazon moved against the offending seller after Hopkins’ blog post was picked up by a number of technology websites, removing its listings from its platform. The Jeff Bezos-owned firm also issued a platitude-laden statement talking up its efforts to crack down on fraudsters using its marketplace.

Whether or not the seller that faked Hopkins’ product would have been dealt with in this manner if his post had not attracted media attention is debatable, but what is clear is that sales platforms such as Amazon, eBay and Walmart simply are not doing enough to prevent counterfeit goods being listed on their websites. The week before Hopkins posted his blog, a US government report warned that an increasing number of counterfeit goods are being offered for sale on ecommerce platforms. The study, published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), noted how the growth of ecommerce had created a new and increasing threat to intellectual property rights holders, and had made it much more difficult for consumers to determine whether or not the goods they buy are genuine.

Warning that cheap counterfeit products offered for sale on ecommerce platforms are endangering legitimate manufacturers and the wider US economy, not to mention posing a significant threat to the health and safety of consumers, the GAO recommended a review of its efforts to enhance intellectual property rights enforcement, and increased cooperation between its officials and the private sector. Commenting on the contents of the report, Beverly Baskin, CEO of the US Council of Better Business Bureaus, said: “If marketplace leaders struggle to keep out counterfeit products, and if consumers cannot rely on those leading companies to protect them from counterfeits, we have a serious problem that can undermine consumer confidence in the entire retail market.”

Bizarrely, the GAO’s recommendations omitted any mention of the enhanced role ecommerce platforms themselves could play in keeping counterfeiters off their websites. Technology giants have proved very adept at reacting quickly to any threat that might impact their bottom lines, but are typically less responsive if a problem does not directly affect them financially. In much the same way that social media companies are slow to remove illegal content from their platforms, the likes of Amazon, Walmart and eBay appear reluctant to invest serious resources into ridding their networks of counterfeit products. Not only is it not profitable for them to do so, in most cases they actually make money from the sale of fake items on their websites. Generally speaking, every time a counterfeit product is sold on an ecommerce platform, its owner takes a cut of the price. As such, it simply does not make financial sense for them to make any real effort to crack down on companies and individuals that use their properties to peddle knock-offs, a situation which has resulted in them only paying lip service to doing so. While ecommerce routinely boast about their initiatives to target fraudsters, an overwhelming amount of evidence clearly shows they are not doing enough.

Sadly, it appears the only way to persuade the owners of these online marketplaces to get serious about properly policing their websites is through the drafting of new legislation that forces them to do so. Last week, the European Commission told technology firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter that they could face fines if they fail to take down extremist material within one hour of it being reported. If lawmakers are serious about protecting intellectual property rights holders and small businesses, it would be sensible to introduce similar punishments for ecommerce firms who allow fake goods to be offered on their platforms. If Amazon, Walmart and eBay faced a substantial fine for every counterfeit listing they allowed to stay live on their websites for 24 hours, it would be likely that some of the brilliant minds they employ would quickly be put to work on developing technology that would ensure these listings are taken down as quickly as they appear.

Large internet firms have proved time and again that they care little for members of the societies they purportedly serve, be they victims of terrorist attacks that have been inspired by material spread online, or small business owners losing money to Chinese counterfeiters who are able to sell knock-offs on ecommerce platforms with near impunity. The time has come for these companies to be held accountable for their behaviour. If they fail to take action of their own accord, they should be forced to protect members of the public and businesses from the bad actors who are currently able use their products all but freely.

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Convicted felon arrested in LA after police seize 553 illegally-owned guns

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553 illegally-owned guns

Police in Los Angeles have discovered a massive haul of 553 illegally-owned firearms inside the home of a convicted felon after receiving information from one of his neighbours.

The huge arsenal of illicit weapons was found after a two-day search of a property inhabited by 60-year-old Manuel Fernandez, who was arrested on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and a being felon in possession of ammunition.

An initial search by local police of Fernandez’s home in the town of Agua Dulce resulted in the discovery of 432 firearms.

A follow-up raid conducted at the property in cooperation with federal agents resulted in the seizure of an additional 91 guns, along with computers, mobile phones, and hard drives.

In a separate swoop on a second address, 30 illegal firearms belonging to a female associate of Fernandez were confiscated.

Commenting on the discovery of the haul, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said: “This case is a testament to the community’s involvement in reducing crime and taking guns out of the hands of criminals.

“The swift response of our Palmdale Sheriff’s Station personnel and the assistance provided by our partners at the California Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) showed the positive result of our campaign ‘See Something, Say Something’.

“We are proud of the relationship we have built in the Antelope Valley area as we continue to build trust with the communities we serve.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department called for assistance from ATF investigators due to the high number of firearms that were recovered during the operation.

They helped trace the purchase history of the guns, and will further assist in the case by providing resources as it progresses through the courts.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, representing Los Angeles County’s 5th District, commented: “I applaud the Palmdale Sheriff’s station, the City’s Partners Against Crime and the Department of Justice who worked in conjunction on this effective operation and massive seizure of illegal firearms.”

The US Department of Homeland Security’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign encourages members of the public to remain alert to and report any potentially suspicious activity they may see to local police.

The campaign is primarily intended to raise awareness of the indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crime, and is said to have played a key role in disputing a number of potential bomb attacks.

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Italian police target organised metal thieves in EU-wide operation

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organised metal thieves

Police in Italy last month led a major EU-wide crackdown on organised metal theft.

Supported by Europol, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL) and the informal Network Against Metal Theft, the operation targeted thieves in Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Britain.

Across the 12 countries that participated in the one-day effort, law enforcement officials ran checks on nearly 54,900 individuals, more than 42,200 vehicles, almost 8,000 environmental companies and scrap dealers, 589 border areas and 2,572 other hotspots, including harbours and rail transport sites.

The crackdown resulted in the arrest of 117 suspects alleged to have committed serious crimes, who were detained alongside more than 1,300 individuals who were convicted of minor offences and released.

Investigators identified a further 1,659 crimes, including 75 cases of theft, 60 of knowingly receiving stolen goods, 137 environmental crimes, 1,387 miscellaneous offences, and 2,763 administrative violations.

Officers seized nearly 358 tonnes of metal worth an estimated €890 000 ($1 million) during the operation, including almost 93 tonnes of copper worth around €540,000, and 983 solar panels and 140 vehicles.

In a statement, Europol said: “This action sends a strong signal from law enforcement authorities to metal theft gangs operating all over Europe and to the many scrapyards that accept all kinds of metal with ‘no questions asked’.

“The phenomenon of copper theft has taken a European dimension and it often affects companies operating in the transport, energy, and telecommunications sectors, disrupting essential public services and leading to significant economic and social repercussions and possible implications for security.”

The operation, during which investigators carried out real-time cross-checks against Europol databases, was conducted within the framework of EMPACT, an ad hoc management environment to develop activities in order to achieve pre-set goals in Europol’s fight against serious international and organised crime.

In May 2016, Europol revealed that police in Romania and France had taken part in an operation that resulted in the disruption of a major Romanian metal theft gang operating in France.

The effort involved 10 simultaneous raids across the country in the provinces of Ilfov, Teleorman and Galati.

Three suspects were arrested and a large quantity of evidence was seized during the raids, including 300kgs of iron alloy, cash and documents.

Earlier this month, China border force agents arrested 245 people on suspicion of being members of a scrap steel smuggling ring who were said to have illegally sold more than 2.4 million tones of metal to buyers across Southeast Asia.

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How paedophiles, sex traffickers and blackmailers freely use the surface web to exploit victims

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paedophiles, sex traffickers and blackmailers

Drug dealers who once felt safe to operate on the dark web have found to their cost over recent years that hidden online marketplaces may not offer the anonymity and protection they once thought they might. The closure of the likes of Hansa and AlphaBay and the arrest of illicit marketplace admins and moderators such as bearded hipster Gal Vallerius and AlphaBay boss Alexandre Cazes have prompted many dealers to abandon the dark web in favour of surface web platforms and applications that ironically seem to offer more protection from the prying eyes of police and other law enforcement authorities.

Paedophiles and child porn distributors have also had their fingers burned on the dark web following the infiltration by police of the world’s largest child porn hidden website, prompting them and other sex offenders to focus on ways of using surface web tools to facilitate their crimes. As has proven to be the case with drugs, weapons and human trafficking, big technology firms have done little to rid their networks of criminals who carry out a range social media-enabled sex offences, whether they involve children or adults. A failure to crack down on this type of activity is resulting in misery for victims across the globe, some of whom end up taking their own lives as a result of being targeted by online predators.

Live child sex abuse streaming

The spread of cheap, fast and reliable internet access in countries in Southeast Asia and South America has resulted in the rise of livestreamed child sex abuse shows, during which paedophiles from across the globe can send instructions to vulnerable young victims who are forced to carry out the degrading acts they request in front of webcams. Taking advantage of child exploitation laws that are much laxer than those that typically apply in most western countries, Southeast Asian and South American sex trafficking gangs lure young people with the promise of well-paid legitimate work, only to compel them to perform for foreign child abusers in squalid cybersex dens. These gangs are able to use surface web encrypted messaging apps such as Skype and WhatsApp to broadcast their livestreams, safe in the knowledge that the content they produce will be inaccessible to global law enforcement agencies. Even if the paedophiles who pay to watch the material they make are caught, sex trafficking gangs in these regions know the likelihood of them facing justice is slim.

Sextortion

Over the past few years, sextortion blackmailers have increasingly targeted social media users looking to meet potential partners and engage in sexual activity online. Often working from organised call centre-style environments, sextortion scammers contact potential victims on social media platforms such as Skype and Facebook, typically pretending to be an attractive young woman. After building a rapport, the fraudsters convince their victims to send them compromising images of themselves, either of in a state of undress or committing a sex act. As soon as they come into possession of the material they are looking for, sextortion scammers immediately turn nasty, demanding payment in exchange for not distributing the incriminating material to victims’ friends and family members. A number of UK victims are known to have taken their lives after being blackmailed by sextortion scammers. In a separate form of sextortion, paedophiles target mostly young women and girls to convince them to send naked pictures, and then blackmail them into performing degrading sex acts in front of a webcam for their own gratification. Both the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the US and Britain’s National Crime Agency have recorded marked increases in reported cases of sextortion in recent years.

Online grooming

Paedophiles have long used the internet to both distribute indecent images of children and target victims to physically abuse, but the growing proliferation of social media platforms, smartphone apps and connected devices is offering them a much wider surface over which to operate – an opportunity they are taking full advantage of. As well as the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, online predators exploit messaging apps including Kik, musical.ly and Ask.fm to target potential victims, typically pretending to be young people themselves. In March, the UK’s National Crime Agency warned that paedophiles were targeting children on the hugely popular Fortnite game via the app’s text chat feature. Earlier this week, a British mother revealed how her son had been sexually abused after being groomed by a paedophile via his games console.

While big technology firms occasionally pay lip service to the protection of children and vulnerable people online, they spend a very small portion of their vast profits on making their platforms a less welcoming environment for paedophiles, sex traffickers and sextortion blackmailers. All the while they refuse to take any real action, it will fall to law enforcement authorities to do what they can to diminish the advantage online surface web tools have handed to these types of offenders. With this being an all but impossible task, the surface web is likely to remain a much more fruitful hunting ground for sexual predators than the dark web until governments force big tech companies to get their house in order and stop profiting from the suffering of the victims of online sexual exploitation.

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