Fake goods hurt real people

Buying counterfeit goods may not be a big deal to you.

You get to save money and the only ones who get hurt are the big corporations whose goods are being copied, right?

Unfortunately, there are many others who get hurt along the way. That fake item could have been made by lowly-paid teenagers held hostage by gangs forcing them to be prostitutes.

Even worse, what you paid for the counterfeit items could help to fund terrorist organisations, said Mr Michael Ellis, 56, Interpol's head of Illicit Goods and Counterfeiting Unit.

A former Scotland Yard detective with 40 years' experience, his unit is responsible for coordinating major raids like last year's Operation Real, where nearly US$50 million (S$67 million) worth of fake and illicit products across Asia were seized.

The fake products included alcohol, cigarettes, cosmetics and electrical goods. More than 660 people were arrested then.

Mr Ellis, who was in town last week for Interpol's 22nd Asian Regional Conference at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre, told The New Paper in an exclusive interview that in many of the cases he has encountered, those involved in manufacturing are forced into it by criminal gangs.

He cited the example of a case from five years ago.

The US$1 music CDs were being sold openly to tourists and locals at one beach in Europe. The police watched as the peddlers took out the fake CDs from their rucksacks and approached diners at nearby restaurants.

Investigations led officers to a nondescript property with boarded-up windows and metal bars.

Mr Ellis said: "When we took action, we saw trafficked Ethiopian women between the ages of 16 and 20 inside. They'd been trafficked to this particular country, fallen into the clutches of a West African crime gang and locked into these rooms. At night, they were taken out and put into the sex trade."

There were hundreds of CD-burning towers inside the house. Twenty women were saved that day.


Mr Ellis added: "When we did the raids, the trafficked girls were crying. And I thought they were frightened that they had been arrested. They were crying because they had been saved."

Counterfeit CDs and DVDs represent only 4 per cent of fake goods seized at European borders.

A 2010 study by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) showed that 57 per cent of seized goods were fake clothing accessories and shoes, and 10 per cent fake jewellery and watches. Counterfeit medicine and electrical equipment formed about 6 per cent each.

UNODC estimates the counterfeit and illicit goods business at "over US$250 billion a year". Interpol and its global partners at the national police levels have seized over US$550 million in counterfeit and illicit traded goods in the last two-and-a-half years.

Mr Ellis said: "In my opinion, it's a small percentage of what is really happening. It's the tip of the iceberg, unfortunately."

Given the vast potential to make money, even those with links to terrorism have ventured into this business.

Mr Ellis pointed to a Jan 16, 2013, hostage crisis in Algeria where terrorists tied to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a known cigarette smuggler, took hostages at a gas facility. In an effort to free the hostages, more than 50 people were killed.

"Everybody says Mokhtar made his money from the movement of illicit tobacco. His nickname is Mr Marlboro.

"He has two international arrest warrants against him for murder and acts of terrorism."

In 1995, the US authorities crippled a cigarette-smuggling operation believed to have been worth US$8 million in revenue for Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

But sniffing out counterfeit goods has its challenges. Bank accounts, production, distribution, Internet service providers and the markets for the goods may appear in different countries.

So a coordinated effort with police units from several countries may be needed to simultaneously bust the illegal operation.

Making it even more challenging are technological advances that make it possible to fake almost anything including brake pads, cough mixture and even chewing gum.

Mr Ellis said that he is concerned that the rise in popularity of 3D printers will present the next big challenge.

At Interpol, as part of their research, officers have produced counterfeit fire alarms, electric switches, contact lenses and bottles of eye cleanser using 3D printers.

"With 3D printers, you can make fake heart valves and guns," he said.

But despite the odds stacked against him, Mr Ellis said: "If I can be involved in an action that can save one child's life or take one trafficked person out of a life of slavery and prostitution, then that's a success."


MARCH 2015

The Malaysian authorities raided a property in Negeri Sembilan, confiscating RM250,000 (S$93,000) worth of fake Milo packets, The Star reported.Police arrested six foreign workers and seized 1,000 empty boxes, 50,000 empty plastic packs, a weighing machine, a printer and a numbering printer.


Police here arrested 11 men and seized 12,900 fake mobile phones and accessories worth $600,000, following a raid on 16 shops in Little India.The suspects, aged between 27 and 46, were believed to be selling and distributing counterfeit mobile phones and accessories.


Chinese authorities arrested around 2,000 people in a major sweep on fake drugs.

Police seized more than US$180 million worth of counterfeit drugs and destroyed 1,100 production sites. The confiscated fake drugs had been advertised in the media and were said to effective against diabetes, high blood pressure and rabies


This article was first published on Apr 20, 2015.
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