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Facebook has more to worry about than the trading of alcohol and tobacco on its platforms

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Facebook has more to worry about than the trading of alcohol and tobacco

Facebook has recently announced several new and extended initiatives intended to crack down on illicit activity on its platforms. In the middle of last week, the social media giant said users of Instagram and Facebook will no longer be able to privately trade alcohol and tobacco-related products, including electronic cigarettes, on either website. The company also revealed that brands which use its platforms to market alcohol and tobacco-related products will now only be able to do so if they ensure any such content is restricted to audiences who are aged 18 and over. Facebook said the new regime will be policed by a combination of manual review, user reports and artificial intelligence, and that any accounts or pages that breach the rules could face being taken down.

Around the same time, it was announced that a coalition of major technology firms including Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter had widened an initiative designed to tackle violent terrorist and extremist content on their platforms. Extending the remit of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), which was formed back in the summer of 2017, the companies last week unveiled a new cross-platform counter-violent extremist toolkit, which was jointly developed with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. In a blog post, the firms also said they will introduce joint content incident protocols for responding to emerging terrorist incidents such as the Christchurch mosque shooting in March, during which gunman Brenton Tarrant livestreamed his attack on Facebook.

It is of course both desirable and admirable that Facebook is taking steps to prevent violent terrorist and extremist content from appearing on its platforms, and to a lesser degree that it is attempting to halt the potentially harmful trading of alcohol and tobacco-related products among users. But looking at other illicit activities that are facilitated by its services, it is hard not to conclude that the company is continuing to do the bare minimum when it comes to investing in eradicating criminality from its products. Facebook, like other social media firms, faced intense criticism after the Christchurch massacre for failing to take down millions of copies of Tarrant’s attack video in the hours and days following the atrocity. This made it all but impossible for the firm not to be seen to be doing more to tackle violent terrorist and extremist content. Meanwhile, the issue of users trading alcohol and tobacco-related products seems as though it should be the least of the company’s worries given the fact that it has problems with other forms of illicit trade that most people would consider to be far more egregious.

Just weeks ago, a study from the Athar Project revealed that Islamist terrorist networks such as Daesh and the al’Qa’ida-linked Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham were using Facebook Groups to sell stolen antiquities looted from war zones in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Researchers from the project, which is run by a group of volunteer anthropologists, found that violent extremist organisations are using Arabic-language pages to either trade directly with buyers, or to manage relationships with middlemen who connect them with dealers and members of the public. In September of last year, international wildlife trade monitor Traffic discovered more than 1,500 listings for the illicit sale of live animals on Facebook in Thailand. Researchers from the NGO said that many of the species listed on 12 Facebook groups they studied in the Southeast Asian country were under international protection, while some were not native to Thailand.

Separately, the social media platform has been repeatedly accused of aiding the businesses of organised immigration crime gangs. Last April, International Organisation for Migration media chief Leonard Doyle called on the firm to boost efforts to ensure its platforms were not being exploited by people smugglers. Noting that Facebook and its encrypted messaging service WhatsApp were being used by human trafficking gangs in the Middle East and Africa to advertise their services and contact migrants, Doyle accused the company of providing a platform from which organised immigration crime gangs were able to coordinate smuggling attempts with would-be refugees and asylum seekers looking to make their way to Europe. Elsewhere, the company has also been accused of facilitating sex trafficking.

Facebook has been forced to act on terrorist content, and is doing so in the knowledge that it could face serious consequences from world governments if it does not, and by extension lose its shareholders money. Unfortunately, criminality facilitated on the company’s platforms that is less high profile does not pose such a threat to its profitability, and as such is not deemed worthy of the investment required to bring it to an end, regardless of the suffering it causes. Technology firms such as Facebook employ some of the greatest technical minds on the planet, many of whom spend a great deal of their time finding ways to profit from users’ data. Sadly, it seems, their skills are only applied to stamping out illicit activity on the company’s platforms when the firm’s bottom line is under threat.

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Human fallibility is the secret behind CEO fraud scammers’ continuing success

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CEO fraud scammers

Global law enforcement agency Interpol used an international conference on cyber crime earlier this month to launch an awareness-raising campaign about CEO Fraud. CEO fraud, referred to by some as business email compromise (BEC) fraud or “whaling”, is a form of phishing that involves criminals tricking company employees who are authorised to issue payments into transferring large sums of money to accounts controlled by fellow fraudsters. Oftentimes, first contact will be made in an email in which a scammer assumes the identity of a senior executive to ask that an urgent payment be made. The criminals behind CEO fraud scams typically do their homework on the companies they target, using their knowledge of the businesses they set out to dupe to convince the employees they contact that they are who they say they are.

CEO fraud scams are also carried out over the phone, with fraudsters calling employees while pretending to be a senior manager, and can often involve scammers forging invoices and other forms of paperwork in order to secure the payments they seek to extract from their victims. Whether the scam is carried out by phone or by email, fraudsters will exploit the seniority of the executive or manager they are impersonating to pressure and intimidate the employees they target to transfer funds into an account they control, typically claiming the payment they are requesting is of the utmost importance and should be treated in the strictest of confidence.

While CEO fraud is by no means a new phenomenon, companies large and small continue to lose huge sums of money to the criminals behind it, despite the launch of numerous awareness-raising campaigns such as the one announced by Interpol earlier this month. According to the FBI, losses from CEO fraud scams run into the billions of dollars every year.

Just weeks before Interpol launched its campaign, the US Better Business Bureau published its own report on CEO fraud, noting that instances of the crime are rising, and that such scams are estimated to have cost American businesses and other organisations more than $3 billion since 2016. Commendable as such interventions may be, they appear to have little effect, with previous efforts launched in countries including the UK and the US apparently having scant impact on CEO fraud scammers’ ability to con large sums of money out of companies that appear to be struggling to come up with ways in which to deal with the crime.

It would be easy to assume that fraudsters who carry out these types of scams would lean towards targeting smaller firms that might have less sophisticated fraud detection systems in place, but several recent cases show this is very far from the case. In a sophisticated variation of CEO fraud, a Lithuanian man was able to fleece an astonishing $100 million from Facebook and Google in a BEC scam. In March, Evaldas Rimasauskas pleaded guilty to sending the two technology giants huge bogus invoices while posing as an Asian computer hardware maker. Using convincing fake email accounts to submit his invoices, Rimasauskas and his associates “forged invoices, contracts, and letters that falsely appeared to have been executed and signed by executives and agents of the victim companies”.

In another example of a blue chip firm falling victim to this type of scam, the Toyota Boshoku Corporation admitted last month that it had been relieved of some four billion yen ($37 million) in a BEC fraud. The firm perhaps understandably chose to reveal few other details about its massive loss. If companies such as these can be duped by CEO fraudsters, what hope is there for smaller firms, particularly at a time when the information and technology available to fraudsters is growing and advancing at a breakneck speed?

Back in August 2017, the Times of London reported that organised crime gangs were staking out LinkedIn profiles in order to gather intelligence that could be used in BEC scams. Earlier this year, police in Ireland warned workers against posting too much information about themselves on all forms of social media to avoid it being used by CEO fraud scammers. In a new worrying twist on the scam, the Wall Street Journal reported in August that an unnamed executive in the UK had been tricked into sending €220,000 ($243,000) to a bank account controlled by fraudsters after they used artificial intelligence technology to mimic the voice of his boss on the phone and demand that a payment be made.

While proposed confirmation of payee systems that require banks to check the name on recipient accounts before making a transfer of funds might go some way towards reducing the success rates currently enjoyed by BEC scammers, the fact that fraudsters rely predominantly on human error makes it unlikely we will see an end to this form of fraud anytime soon. Quite the opposite in fact. No matter how many awareness-raising campaigns are launched by well-meaning organisations, the wealth of information and technology that is now available to the often organised criminals behind this type of fraud leaves them perfectly placed to exploit the human fallibility of CFOs and account department workers.

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Airbnb continues to profit from the global sex trafficking trade

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Airbnb continues to profit from the global sex trafficking trade

At the end of September, Airbnb unveiled a new special portal through which law enforcement officials can request information about users of the short-term property rental service. The company said the portal will provide investigators with a dedicated channel they can use to submit legal requests for information relating to information it might hold on individuals of potential interest. While Airbnb made no mention of the types of information it might be providing to police through the service, the firm said in a statement that the portal would complement the work it does on a daily basis to keep its hosts, guests and wider communities safe.

Although short-term rental properties such as those offered via Airbnb can be useful to those carrying out a number of illegal activities, they have recently become most synonymous with human trafficking and prostitution, with organised criminal gangs increasingly turning temporary accommodation into so-called “pop-up brothels”. As has been the case with almost every other industry, the internet has had a disruptive effect on the oldest profession in the world, not only helping sex workers and the pimps and gangs that control them reach a larger number of potential customers through escort sites, but also by allowing them to avoid the attention of law enforcement agencies by arranging short-terms lets online to turn into pop-up brothels.

It is a problem of which Airbnb is all too aware. Back in February of last year, the company teamed up with US anti-trafficking NGO Polaris to launch an initiative intended to prevent its properties from being used as pop-up brothels. Polaris and Airbnb vowed to crack down on the practice of pimps and traffickers renting out short-let properties for a few days or weeks before moving on to another one before police can act against them. Airbnb said it would also work with Polaris to train its staff on how to spot the signs of modern slavery and human trafficking.

Realistically though, short of installing cameras in each one of its properties or carrying out regular spot checks on tenants, Airbnb can actually do very little to stop its rentals being used in this manner. Unfortunately for the company, the problem has become a global one, with Airbnb properties the world over apparently being used for the purposes of prostitution.

Only last month, the Otago Daily Times reported that a New Zealand man returned from his travels around Asia to discover that his property had been used for sex work by the people who rented it from him during July and August through Airbnb. The man, who asked the paper to maintain his anonymity, said he came back to his property to find it stinking of cheap perfume, and later received a visit from a man who asked: “Where are the girls?” In June of last year, the UK’s Mirror reported that a couple who used Airbnb to rent out their home in Amsterdam returned to their property to find strange stains all over their furniture, and were later told by police that their address had been listed in multiple ads on sex and prostitution websites.

Mail Online reported in July 2017 that British police had warned that human traffickers were renting out Airbnb properties across the UK before advertising the services of prostitutes put to work in them online. Speaking at the time, Sergeant Matt Puttock, the Tactical Lead for Sexual Exploitation at Gloucestershire Police, said: “These are by their nature often quite hidden places. It’s very transient as they often hire Airbnb places or other serviced apartments.”

While incidents of Airbnb properties being used by prostitutes are oftentimes covered by the media with something of a nudge and a wink, the spreading phenomenon of pop-up brothels is a major driver of the exploitation of young women and girls who are trafficked across the globe in order to be forced into selling sexual services. In a report published in 2018, Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade cautioned that pop-up brothels “are changing migration patterns with huge numbers of women, particularly from Eastern Europe, being brought in by [trafficking] groups to service British men who have an expectation of an absolute right to buy sex”.

The report recommended that the UK government should issue guidance for the short-term letting sector on preventing trafficking for sexual exploitation, which should specifically address the responsibilities of companies such as Airbnb.

For its part, Airbnb does at least appear to be attempting to address the problem with the launch of its partnership with Polaris and the establishment of its law enforcement agency portal. Commendable as both these endeavours may be however, neither will likely have any real impact on the number of the firm’s rentals that are used as pop-up brothels, and will do little to protect the vulnerable woman and girls who are exploited in the properties whose letting out the firm profits from so handsomely.

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The US trade war with Beijing will do little to prevent counterfeit items flooding out of China

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counterfeit items flooding out of China

While US President Donald Trump has sought to make intellectual property rights (IPR) a major sticking point in America’s ongoing trade war with China, the little progress made in negotiations between the two countries in this area over the past year or so will likely make no dent whatsoever in the huge number of counterfeit and pirated products that are exported out of China to foreign markets every year. For its part, Beijing claims it has made significant progress on IP protection in recent years, with data from China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (Safe) showing in April that the country’s external payments of IPR royalties had risen 24% in 2018 to $35.8 billion, resulting in a deficit of $30.2 billion.

Beijing has long promised to improve its IPR protection regime, more as part of efforts to bolster innovation and support its own industries than to placate the US, and has set up a series of specialist IP courts across the nation, as well as increasing penalties for trademark infringement. Although foreign companies have complained that these are often biased towards domestic firms and hand out inadequate punishments, the increased external IPR royalty payments being made by China suggest that the country’s new approach might be producing some positive results.

While this development is to be welcomed, particularly for those businesses that have benefited from increased IPR royalties emanating from the country, it remains to be seen what impact if any China’s new IPR regime might have on the massive amount of fake items that flood out of the  country to overseas markets.

Some experts believe the US/China trade war could even lead to an increase in the number of counterfeit goods coming out of the mainland and Hong Kong, with World Trademark Review reporting in June 2018 that six trade associations had warned US Congress that tariffs levied against Beijing could divert resources away the country’s efforts to fight the counterfeiters that operate from within its borders. In March, CNBC reported that if anything the problem is likely to get worse, not least on account of the fact that Chinese counterfeiters are increasingly able to take advantage of technology such as ecommerce platforms and 3D printers.

It could be argued that it is too early to tell whether the US trade war with China will have any meaningful effect on the volume of bogus goods that are exported from the mainland and Hong Kong to the rest of the world an annual basis, but the direction of travel suggests that an improvement from the current state of affairs looks a long way off.

At the beginning of September, the AFP news agency reported that head of the Investigations Directorate at the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF had warned that the growth of ecommerce platforms had made Europe’s battle with counterfeiters from China more difficult, noting that gangs of fraudsters operating from within the country were to blame for the problem rather than the state itself. Just weeks later, data released by the European Commission revealed that seizures of fake goods consignments imported into the EU had risen over the previous year, and that the majority of bogus household items smuggled into the 28-nation bloc had come from China.

Back in March, a report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the EU’s Intellectual Property Office revealed that fake goods had grown to account for 3.3% of all global trade, and that most of the counterfeit items seized around the world in 2016 originated from mainland China and Hong Kong. Things seem not to have improved much over the intervening years, with continual reports suggesting that mainland China and Hong Kong remain the source of the lion’s share of all fake items sold around the globe.

At the end of last month, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) revealed that its officers based at a cargo sorting centre in Kentucky had discovered counterfeit bracelets and other jewellery sent from China that would have been worth some $90 million if they had been genuine. This came after the CBP’s annual Intellectual Property Rights Statistics showed that China remained the main source of counterfeit and pirated goods seized by customs agents across the US in 2018, accounting for 54% of the value of all IPR seizures in the country that year.

All of this suggests that while Beijing’s new IPR regime looks set to improve the lot of businesses that had been losing out on royalties they should have been earning on products sold within China, life looks unlikely to change for the organised criminal networks that are behind many of the counterfeits that are exported out of the country to overseas markets, and that tariffs imposed by the Trump administration might even make things easier for them.

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