Counterfeit products are prevalent throughout the digital marketplace, deceiving consumers, infringing on major brands, and damaging site reputations. However, because of the complexity of the advertising placement process, many ads for counterfeit goods still make their way through ad networks and onto reputable publisher sites. Although ad networks try to identify and block counterfeit ads, differentiating counterfeit products and legitimate luxury goods and branded products sold by legitimate resellers can create difficulty because ad networks are not, and should not be, in the business of investigating product authenticity.
Proactive advertiser vetting, though, can connect new advertisers to past counterfeiting activities, highlighting high-risk advertiser partnerships. Even when a counterfeit advertiser slips through the vetting process, inspecting ad creative along with the landing page and the accompanying site can tie advertisers to proven counterfeiting activity. For example, a recent Facebook ad (shown below) advertised an “outlet site” on which consumers could purchase discounted Michael Kors products. The ad identified the site address as michael-kors.bagsinbulks.com, which redirects consumers to www.mkoutletinternet.com.
Professionally designed, the site www.mkoutletinternet.com (shown below) appears to sell Michael Kors bags and accessories at deeply discounted prices.
However, a further examination of the site reveals numerous grammatical errors and a poor grasp of the English language, raising a red flag as to the site’s authenticity. Furthermore, the FAQ page (shown below) exposes that the products being sold are “replicas” and are, thus, counterfeit.
A google search for the exact phrase, “We provide high quality replica Michael Kors products, directly made of Michael Kors official manufactory in China,” revealed, at the time of our initial investigation, more than 25 other sites, including www.michael-kors-ca.com, www.official-michaelkorsshop.com, www.official-michael-kors-online.org, www.official-michael-kors.org, www.themichaelkorsoutletstore.us.com, and www.michaelkorssalewithfashion.com, selling counterfeit products. Because the sites share nearly identical language and designs, the same counterfeiting ring likely was selling all of the products. At the time this case study was published, many of the sites had been shut down as part of the legal proceedings in Michael Kors, L.L.C. v. The Partnerships and Unincorporated Associations Identified on Schedule “A” (Case No. 14-cv-5485). Many sites listed in the original search results that were shut down exhibit “michael kors” as part of their domain names. Sites with more ambiguous names that contained the same phrase, including www.mkoutletinternet.com, www.52bapi.com, and www.mcmoutlet.com, were still live.
Investigation into domain registration records revealed that www.mkoutletinternet.com is registered to Huang Qian at the email address email@example.com. Huang Qian as associated with firstname.lastname@example.org is also listed as a defendant on Schedule “A” in Michael Kors, L.L.C. v. The Partnerships and Unincorporated Associations Identified on Schedule “A.”
Further research uncovered that www.mkoutletinternet.com is just one of many sites in a much larger counterfeiting operation. Investigation into the original WHOIS registration information for www.52bapi.com, which contained the same search phrase and exhibited a similar site design, shows the original registrant’s contact email address as email@example.com. This email address is associated with qq.com profile 5656153.qzone.qq.com (shown below).
According to domain registration records, this email address has been used to register nearly 2,000 domain names since 2012, many of which are typosquatting on major brands, highjacking brand-associated URLs for products such as Michael Kors, Hermes, Prada, and Louis Vuitton bags and accessories, Ugg boots, Ray-Ban and Oakley sunglasses, and Beats by Dre headphones.
This investigation offers just a brief overview of one of many counterfeiting rings that piggyback on the successes of established brands and profit from consumer deception by leveraging the complexity of the online advertising environment. Participants in large counterfeiting rings can often be identified through third-party advertiser and campaign screening processes and due diligence best practices. Legal cases frequently provide red flags to help identify high-risk partners. For example, Michael Kors, L.L.C. v. The Partnerships and Unincorporated Associations Identified on Schedule “A” (Case No. 14-cv-5485) identified 813 domain names, 479 domain registrant accounts, and 64 online marketplace accounts accused of participating in the sale of counterfeit merchandise. Implementing consistent third-party and campaign vetting practices can help keep publishers, networks, brands, and consumers safe from deceptive and illegal activities.
Jackie Westmoreland is Director of Communications at Media Thirst.