The journey of anti-counterfeiting: an interview with Chris Vansteenkiste, Europol.
Counterfeiting is a global problem that transcends borders and has serious implications for citizens, business and governments at a national level. International agencies such as Europol are able to provide a more effective global oversight. They can help to gather and process cross border intelligence as well as assisting in the closer collaboration between industry and law enforcement agencies in Europe and across the globe to tackle this global phenomenon.
To mark its 20th anniversary, ICCE (Imaging Consumables Coalition for Europe, Middle East and Africa) has commissioned a series of interviews with key leaders in the anti-counterfeiting field. Chris Vansteenkiste has been working in Intellectual Property (IP) crime for over 20 years and is currently Cluster Manager for Europol’s Anti-Counterfeiting Unit, IPC3 (Intellectual Property Crime Coordinated Coallition).
Europol received the mandate for dealing with counterfeit issues back in 2003 but had no dedicated resources at the time. This changed in 2008 when an operational product-counterfeiting unit was established.
ICCE spoke to Chris about the journey of anti-counterfeiting over the years, the key successes and the changes in the market dynamics.
Developments in counterfeiting
Counterfeiting has changed dramatically over the last ten to twenty years. By making it easy for criminals to sell directly to consumers, the Internet has opened up a range of possibilities, and almost any product is now under threat of counterfeiting.
The problem is exacerbated by a lack of awareness. Most consumers don’t even realise that most products they buy on a daily basis, such as tea and batteries, could be fake.
“Counterfeiters are becoming smarter,” Chris says. “They’re not just focusing on luxury brands like they did in the beginning – they’re focusing on day-to-day consumer goods.”
“If you buy a luxury handbag for ten euros everyone knows it’s fake,” Chris explains. “But consumers don’t expect fake shampoo or a fake ink cartridges for sale on the internet or in the shops. They just don’t expect it in day-to-day consumables.”
“Criminals know that people’s first reaction is, ‘why would anyone fake this? These are low price articles.’ That’s true, but when they are traded in large quantities, even if their individual value is low they can still make money by selling large quantities.”
Partnerships: the key to success
Counterfeiting is a crime that transcends borders. As such, the fight against counterfeiters is a process that involves many different law enforcement agencies, as well as IP owners. Close international collaboration and meticulous planning is therefore needed. This is where agencies like Europol are essential as they are able to bring all relevant parties together.
“There is much more inter-country cooperation today,” Chris agrees. “In former days it was pursued at a national level. Customs would seize some goods and that was that. But more and more we see cases are not stopping at the border. Thanks to international agencies like Europol, OLAF (European Anti Fraud Office) and Interpol we can have a more positive end to the case, pursuing criminals into other countries.”
As well as law enforcement agencies, industry organisations like ICCE are fundamental. These organisations can highlight trends, share intelligence and provide expert industry insight to Europol to help inform their strategy and enforcement activities.
Changing attitudes to counterfeiting
Although there is still some way to go, attitudes to counterfeiting have changed considerably over the last two decades.
One of the key shifts has been in the media. Today counterfeiting receives more media attention than ever before resulting in greater public awareness of the issue.
“Twenty years ago you hardly saw any articles relating to the dangers of IP crime but now you see quite a lot of publicity, helping to raise awareness.” Chris comments. “Consumers won’t buy a product if they know it will be dangerous to their health or safety.”
Governments too have begun to pay attention.
“They have realised they are losing money from taxation and employment, as well as recognising the danger to consumer health and safety, so there is a definite increase in their involvement,” Chris says.
Many countries now operate specialised IP crime units, such as PIPCU (Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit) in the UK to deal with the scale of the problem.
Changes in crime
While crime-fighting agencies have become more sophisticated in their approach, so too have the criminals. As well as expanding their range of fake goods, counterfeiters are becoming more organised and are diversifying into other crimes.
Chris comments, “we’ve seen a shift in the way OCGs (Organised Crime Groups) carry out their activities. Whilst IP crime offers a great opportunity for money laundering these groups also run multifaceted and multinational organisations involved in a range of criminal activities, including drugs and people trafficking.”
Technology: threat and solution
Technology has had a major impact on the world of counterfeiting. The Internet’s global open marketplace and new technologies like 3D printing present huge opportunities for those looking to manufacture fakes.
Technology is also providing solutions. For example, imaging supply companies are now using sophisticated holograms and QR code technology in their packaging.
Whilst these anti-counterfeiting solutions make it possible for retailers and consumers to check what they’re buying, “You can’t expect a customs officer, who has to check an entire container of shampoo, liquor or cigarettes to carry fifteen or twenty different devices on his belt” says Chris. “The work is never finished because the more inventive law enforcement becomes, the more selective and creative the criminals become,” says Chris. “But agencies today are managing the problem in a much better way than 15 or 20 years ago. That is a very positive thing.”
Europol is the European Union’s agency for law enforcement cooperation. Their main goal is to achieve a safer Europe for the benefit of all EU citizens. Headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, they assist the 28 EU Member States in their fight against serious international crime and terrorism. They also work with many non-EU partner states and international organisations.
ICCE was formed in 1997 as a direct response to the increase in counterfeit imaging consumables across the regions of Europe, Middle East and Africa. Imaging consumables include such products as toner, ink cartridges and ribbons.
Initially created as an industry association with a focus on education and lobbying, it has since developed to include managing the Intelligence, co-ordinating joint industry raids and supporting its members in pursuing counterfeiters through the courts.
For more information and further enquiries please visit www.icce.net/contact/.
To follow ICCE on Twitter please visit @ICCEfightsfakes.