Brand Protection in Latin America

Andrew Love (left)
Brand Protection/Investigations, Specialized Bicycles

Aaron Aguilar (right)
Regional Investigation Manager, Latin America, UL

Note from Andrew:  The whole concept of this column is a casual conversation format where two professionals chat informally about the tactics and challenges of brand protection. This exact phenomenon happens all the time at brand protection gatherings, either during session or afterwards, many times with a glass of wine in hand.

For this edition’s column, Aaron Aguilar of Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and I replay a conversation we had over lunch one day while we were both attending an event in Cartagena, Colombia.

You are the head of Brand Protection for UL, focusing on Latin America. How long have you been working in investigations, and when did UL realize there was a need to conduct brand protection investigations in Latin America (LATAM)?

I joined UL’s Global Security & Brand Protection Team in 2015. Prior to UL, I worked for 15 years in the Anti-Piracy Unit for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). But it really all started at the Fort Worth Police Department, where most of my time there was conducting narcotics investigations. In investigating music bootleggers, I came to find that the  investigative strategy was very similar to drug dealers. Adding on to that, more and more of our targets had previous drug convictions or ties with criminal gangs.

For over 20 years, UL has had a dedicated group tasked with investigating and combatting infringements of UL intellectual property rights. UL has offices in Mexico, Bogota, Brazil, and Argentina. With the success and growth in the LATAM region, the UL mark has become attractive to counterfeiters.

Yes, the need has suddenly exploded. The cycling industry is under intense attack right now in LATAM. When I saw the fakes start appearing at scale on Facebook, I remember the first big one was 2013 out of Mexico. It was suddenly time to engage fully in the region.

I refer to this as the evolution of criminal enterprises. They are constantly finding ways to avoid detection and maximize commercialization of their illicit goods. Who would’ve thought Facebook and IM apps like Whatsapp & WeChat would become major platforms for counterfeiters to offer their goods?

Well said about WhatsApp and WeChat! They are tough nuts to crack. How do you balance training Customs, working with law enforcement, patrolling, and gathering intelligence? I find myself more in a managing investigations and relationships role than I used to be.

I’m more of a program manager, working with our partners and stakeholders throughout LATAM in striving to meet our overall mission, which is working for a safer world. But I can never totally get away from my primal instincts in doing undercover work.

It feels like even as a program manager, you must be in touch with investigations. You can’t know the situation on the ground otherwise. So as a program manager, what do you focus on?

Supporting global Customs enforcement remains our bread and butter. For over 20 years, our program has been very effective in intercepting products with counterfeit UL marks at the borders. Next would be targeting illicit manufacturing operations. We strive to keep these potentially hazardous products from making their way into homes, businesses, and public places.

Who are great partners in Latin America? We have had success working with the IP attachés at the U.S. embassies in the countries that are crazy about cycling.

I agree, the U.S. government is a strong advocate and resource in helping companies engage governments on IPR issues. These would include the IPR Center, USPTO Legal IP Attaches in Mexico, Peru, and Brazil (see BPP, September, 2016 USPTO’s Intellectual Property Attache Program: How it Can Help), Department of Justice IP Law Enforcement Coordinator, and others. We’ve participated and supported operations with Interpol, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and World Customs Organization (WCO) Container Control Program, International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC), and American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). There are also several regional organizations that are forming which I’m also excited about learning more.

Those are all great resources! I don’t speak Spanish, you do. I realized that was an impediment to my work, so I hired a great fellow to work these cases. Is it essential to have a Spanish speaker on the job for LATAM enforcement?

For the management of a brand protection program, the ability to communicate in Spanish isn’t a must. I do think there are advantages if one is able to speak Spanish. However, the true need exists in having team members on the ground that not only can communicate in Spanish, but have an understanding of the many other relevant factors unique to each country. And of course, our friends in Brazil, Belize, Guyana, Suriname, and others in the Caribbean would certainly agree that Spanish isn’t essential.

Well pointed out!

Take out the UL certified crystal ball, where do you see things going in 5 years? If we reprise this lunch conversation in, say, 2023, what will we be talking about? Personally, I think we are going to be deeper and deeper into the anonymizing platforms, but we might also have public backlash by then against people who use the internet for anonymous crime. I have a sneaking hope legislation and public sentiment will catch up with the current reality.

Five years isn’t that far off, but, with rapid advances in technology that create new opportunities for commerce, we have to be flexible and fluid in developing anti-counterfeiting strategies that will tackle new challenges. At the highest levels of counterfeiting operations, I can see use of crypto currency becoming a preferred method for conducting financial transactions. On the positive side, I see current efforts from international agencies such as WCO, UNODC, INTERPOL, US IPR Center, with continued support from the private sector, making it much easier and effective for brand owners to expand their anti-counterfeiting efforts into emerging markets.

Thanks for all the thoughts Aaron. This has been an excellent discussion over lunch. I plan on using a couple of your suggestions.