In Defense of
-a conversation

Andrew Love
Brand Protection/Investigations, Specialized Bicycles
, ,

Mike Hill
Former Rosetta Stone Investigator

Currently a private consultant

Something people always bemoan is the “whack-a-mole” nature of Brand Protection. However, is there an eloquent defense of whack-a-mole, in particular in the online space?

Of course. It is frustrating and expensive to everyone involved. Online platforms have to remove infringing material, freeze or suspend accounts and deal with subpoenas and Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) notices. Infringers have to create new accounts and new listings and forfeit seized funds. If you report every infringing listing, platforms will eventually go out of their way to get your infringers off their site quickly and for good. The squeaky wheel is a true story.

I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve seen changes in behavior on many of my targets after concerted efforts. One thing about whack-a-mole, is that moles do have nerve endings. These are real people, not machines. Hit them enough times, make it impossible for them to eat, they will go somewhere else.

Speaking of where the moles proliferate, what are your best Craigslist hunting tips?

I like to use RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds for monitoring combined with complex undercover accounts and social engineering. The more social networks the UC (undercover) accounts touch, the realer they become. I once played Mafia Wars on Facebook with a Rosetta Stone infringer for three months before I could get enough information out of them for an investigation.

Yes, RSS feeds, either into an RSS reader, or an RSS folder of your inbox, are invaluable.  I use these for tracking theft from bike shops too. Quite useful.

What are your best pointers for creating a fake ID? I remember you once saying you made at least one a week.

I’ve had luck using Wikipedia for the character’s geographic background information. I’ve also found adding additional details to the character’s social media accounts to fit the infringer’s ideal mark helps too. If the infringer is selling video games, make the character appear to be an avid gamer by joining or liking game related groups or topics. We actually had an intern reverse engineer a dating site profile so one of their characters was a 95% match with a target’s dating profile. Then all we had to do was take bets on how long it would be before the target contacted the rigged dating profile. Two days.

That… is…Awesome….OK, so how do you decide who is a worthwhile target that your fake ID’s engage with?

I look at proven monetary damages or the volume of their activity. I also target individuals distributing both my brand and the brands of allied companies with active enforcement programs. This is a great practice to build contacts in the industry, crowd-source your efforts and make the cases more desirable to law enforcement.

Agreed. I will add that in addition to volume, we have several categories of threats. For someone reselling cycling apparel, yeah, it’s an economic damage question. However, for the counterfeit cycling-helmet sellers, we go after those moles with everything we have got. Even a handful of fake helmets could kill someone.

No other way to go. In my experience law enforcement will move mountains to stop criminals from trafficking products that threaten their communities. We once had a case where LE bagged an infringer for a single misdemeanor counterfeit charge and then gave him a few dozen felonies for the counterfeit Viagra blister packs they found at his residence.

Speaking of happy cases, do you have a particular favorite?

After one particularly big financial seizure versus a fake-apparel manufacturer, I received an email in Chinese, basically telling me to go eat rice 365 days a year. When playing whack-a-mole, you rarely hear the mole say, “Ouch!”

Do you make trap buys?

Yes.  I have made test purchases for civil-litigation cases. I’ve found that law enforcement prefers to make their own test purchases to determine if a suspect is selling counterfeit products though.

What kind of demands do you make in letters?  I’ve got several different templates depending on what kind of seller I am going after.

Quit it. Retain records. You or an attorney representing you must contact us within 5 business days to discuss resolution.

I usually demand an email response in 48 hours. If they ignore an email, then I send a snail-mail letter. Ignoring that gives me more ammunition for further action with law enforcement.

Yeah, it’s like Christmas for them when they get email records with a subpoena and find a few Cease-and-Desist notices. Especially when the notices are buried between a hundred product-listing confirmation emails for the products in the notice.

When do you decide to bring in law enforcement?

Whenever I can gift-wrap the case for them or I find a 150k in damages. Most LE bodies have limited resources so make it easy or make it big but don’t waste their time.

Make it easy or make it big” should be a mantra that should be on every brand protection professional’s wall when it comes to packaging up cases.

Ha. It should, that and a bunch of mug shots surrounding it.