Brand Protection/Investigations, Specialized Bicycles
Brian S. Weinhaus
Unit Chief, National IPR Center
So let’s get right to the fun -what is great about working at the National IPR Center and what is really frustrating that you wish you could change with the wave of a magic wand?
To me the best part about the IPR Center are the people, this is not a canned response, but you couldn’t hope for a better team! I’ve worked with Director Steve Francis for years and he is a great leader. But it’s not just the management that is great, it’s really all about the program managers. The entire staff is excellent and not a single person there needs hand holding, these are professionals because they have passion for what they are doing. Bill Hardy is a great example of the type of professionals at the Center. Bill is a true expert and just knows everything about the sports apparel/merch category. But like most of our program managers he is able to work outside of his designated lane and succeed in multi-faceted cases involving other commodities.
I also really enjoy the interaction with the private sector collaborating on investigations and participating on professional panel discussions. It’s important for the government to hear what industry needs. I find that the needs of industry can vary greatly from sectors such as the fashion industry to a company like 3M.
Magic wand – If I could change anything, I would say that we see a lot of crossover between financial crime, cybercrime and counterfeits, and we are in different silos within Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Although we connect well, I would love to see these resources directly in the Center, to meld the capacity more thoroughly.
Agreed fully on that one. Follow the money. It’s one of my strategic imperatives.
Also, I would love to see the pandemic go away.
I’ve worked with the National IPR Center for over a decade now. In Internet years, that is pretty much forever. How has the mission evolved?
I was talking with Steve on this topic just yesterday. We have recognized that IP crime is not just an IP crime, as I’ve stated. With the rise of COVID-19, we also see these melding even more. With Operation Stolen Promise we joined directly with our cyber and financial investigation divisions to attack the problem. We started up a group under Operation Stolen Promise to combine efforts and work together on leads generated to the field.
We within HSI are working to make sure we are not siloed in our separate divisions and work together to tackle the problems we are seeing today. In addition, the days of each individual brand having to fight its battles on it’s own, those days are coming to an end. We have several initiatives where the groups are combining efforts to exchange information amongst themselves and share with the IPR Center. One example is the E-Commerce working group, which is a cooperative effort of several ecommerce platforms who are working towards collaborating and communicating with each other on offenders they find in their systems. The platforms are looking to effectively work together, and that would help reach those sometimes-difficult prosecutorial thresholds. The automotive industry has A2C2, and they share information and then bring us into it. And it works quite well….
The pandemic has made certain items truly hot commodities; my narrow view of the cycling industry has seen a massive increase in sales (USA imports were up 40% in COVID 2020 vs. 2019, we are tracking at 70% for 2021 so far) and, more theft and counterfeits. What are you seeing? I saw an interview with Steve, talking about all sorts of strange things that are out there now.
As I mentioned before, Operation Stolen Promise started in April of last year. In the beginning of the pandemic we saw a lot of unapproved COVID testing kits coming in through the points of entry into the U.S. There was a lot of confusion – what are these? fake? unapproved? We worked closely with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to align efforts on how to approach that problem.
We saw unapproved drugs coming in. We were also seeing ”virus shutout” lanyards, something you would wear, which contains pesticides or herbicides around your neck. So, we were working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on those devices. The counterfeit PPEs were an issue right from the beginning, a well-publicized issue. 3M has been really great to work with and very forward leaning on this issue. Our coordination with them has been successful. We have had over 22 million counterfeit masks seized so far.
Through our partnerships, we have also seen a lot of economic fraud. Recently we have been working to take down many websites spoofing legitimate pharmaceutical websites. These websites often offer access to vaccines but are really a device to steal personal and financial information. The IPR Center and our cybercrimes unit has worked closely with the Pharma industry to get these websites quickly shut down.
Talk about the foreign attaché program. It has been super helpful for Specialized, there are several who have been so good to work with. I want to send a shout out to the team in China especially, just top notch folks.
We have attachés in 53 countries. At the IPR center we work closely with our agents overseas and our foreign law enforcement partners. We have a monthly call with our representatives in China to discuss leads sent to Chinese law enforcement. Our work connects, and helps our Chinese counterparts investigate businesses producing counterfeit items. We share this info with our Department of Justice partners for deconfliction and tracking of cases. This work goes on around the world though, it’s not just China. As an example we connected our office in London with 3M on counterfeits destined for the UK. This coordination helped City of London Police stop a large shipment of fake masks from entering the country.
It should be recognized that our agents posted overseas don’t have enforcement authority in foreign countries. Our efforts focus on working with the host government to investigate wrongdoers.
I agree on the host government conundrum. I was describing some of the work of our investigators in another country, and the IPR attaché grinned at me and said “glad you guys are on that, we can’t do things like that. It would be called espionage.” I’ve worked with the IPR center for so long, but here is a question for those who are new to the process. For a brand protection professional, what is the best way to submit a case?
To me, a direct human connection is the best way to share information. We have dedicated professionals in every field who are familiar with the targeted industries. Contact me for that personal introduction to our program managers. I can be reached at Brian.S.Weinhaus@ice.dhs.gov.
I want the IPR center to be of service to the industry as well as the public. As the program managers are the experts, I would tell people to seek out that connection and go directly with that person with any information or questions. Our team can also be reached by going to iprcenter.gov. There is a report IP Theft button that can be used to submit information.
Ok, so reverse interview polarity here -ask me a question.
Here is one. Many companies rely really heavily on civil enforcement, some criminal. When it comes to civil vs. criminal, do you see a difference in the deterrent effect?
It entirely depends on the target and what country they are in. Example: a cycling apparel seller on Amazon, where it would be extraordinarily hard to track them down, we go civil and grab their money. That gets their attention & deters. The actual factories in China or Latin America? Always criminal. Always. Within the USA, I use a much softer glove approach currently because I have had multiple successful federal cases. When I approach someone via a Cease & Desist or email, they usually Google Specialized/me, and find those cases. They rapidly surrender and even profusely apologize.
This is how successful cases in a jurisdiction can have long-term payoff. They truly deter. I did an interview with the Brand Protection Stories podcast about one of my biggest cases, and that enormous effort has paid off in countless ways. So many follow up sellers find that, and crumble like dirt clods in rainstorms when I contact them. It happened last week actually.
So what can we do as brands to help your mission?
Communication, please be willing to communicate with us on the front end when you are having issues. We can do a lot more when criminal investigations happen first, but our hands are tied when we are brought in later, after civil action has been launched.
Communication, communication – always let us know what you are seeing. We can often see connections that private industry can’t. Addresses, phone numbers, we can make connections that are often not readily visible to industry…
Thanks Brian! When I get back to DC, I look forward to having lunch with you in one of those cafes near the National IPR Center in Crystal City, imagine that?!?! Face to face conversations!
I would just like to reiterate that the National IPR Center is here to assist both private sector companies and the public. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you or your business has been a victim of crime involving counterfeit or pirated goods.
THE BRAND PROTECTION PROFESSIONAL |JUNE 2021| VOLUME 6 NUMBER 2
COPYRIGHT 2021 MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY BOARD OF TRUSTEES