The FANIF Q&A with Inspector Brian O’Neill, Commanding Officer of the Organized Crime Investigation Division

November 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Inspector Brian O’Neill stands on the front line of the fight against the fakes. As the Commanding Officer of the NYPD’s Organized Crime Investigation Unit, a post that he has held for 7 years, he directs the city’s anti-counterfeiting efforts. A Bronx native and graduate of Cardinal Spellman High School, Inspector O’Neill began his police career in 1980 as a patrolman out of the 48th Precinct in Tremont.

Since his early days in narcotics, O’Neill has earned a steady stream of promotions: Sergeant (1985), Lieutenant (1989), Captain (1994), Deputy Inspector(2003). He was promoted to his current post of Inspector in 2007. As commanding officer of the OCIU, he is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department’s fight against the fake trade, as well as shaping future investigative and enforcement programs. He has helped grow a division that was called the ‘t-shirt squad’ when it was formed in 1994, the first police unit of its kind in the country, into a dynamic crime fighting unit tasked with defending against an ever-morphing epidemic that costs the city a billion dollars each year.

Let’s talk about education, what do you believe we can do in this area?

We have to keep getting the word out. The profit made from counterfeiting is funding organized criminal groups, and that is bad for everyone. Terrorist groups are the beneficiaries of this money. Child labor continues to be exploited by counterfeiters. This is a significant issue. When you combine these facts with the economic impact counterfeiting has on the city, the NY comptroller has said in the past that the city loses $1 billion a year, which is a staggering number. The importance of the problem is undeniable. We have to tell people about it.

Getting the word out to the consumers who buy fakes, by whatever means necessary, is one of the best ways to fight the counterfeiters. The people who are buying these items need to hear about the reality of their purchase.

What is the real cost of fakes to society?

It funds criminal organizations. It pays for terrorist groups. Tax dollars that could be put to other social programs are spent in the fight. The cost is huge.

How can we increase the visibility of this epidemic?

Corporations need to discuss it more within themselves and with the public. Increased advertising that addresses the problem would also help.

By making government reports that document the problem more visible, like the comptroller’s report, we can educate the public about the size of this problem. When public figures like Ray Kelly, NYC’s Police commissioner and Mayor Bloomberg have spoken, it helps significantly.

How has counterfeiting evolved?

It is constantly evolving. Back in 1994, when the NYPD realized the economic impact this crime could have on the city, we saw that it was growing and had to confront it. The first unit that was assembled to tackle the problem was focused exclusively on trademark infringement. It was nicknamed the ‘t-shirt squad,’ because the emblems, like the Nike swoosh, were being printed, slapped on t-shirts, and sold illegally.

Now, virtually everything is counterfeited: shoes, belts, bags, electronics, auto parts, etc. Auto parts are scary when you think about brake pads. We’ve seen fake Bluetooth devices. Then there are the fake batteries. What happens when they end up in a fire detector?

The way we’ve addressed the problem has changed over time: we started with one unit and now we’ve brought many more into the fight. We have intelligence officers who notify us of counterfeit sales. We use asset forfeiture laws to go after companies that sell. We’ve really expanded.

Even the industry helps by training patrol officers to recognize the false items sold by peddlers.

We have to address all levels from individual street sellers to large-scale distributors, but we want to stay focused on the big outfits: the importers and the manufacturers.

Is counterfeiting more dangerous then it has been?

We have never seen so many items being counterfeited, and they can all be potentially dangerous to everyday life. It’s amazing. Like in most criminal enterprises, if these people put their minds to good purposes, the results would be equally significant. They just chose the wrong path.

How do we improve penalties and enforcement?

We need to make law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges recognize the impact these crimes have, so that they are treated in a proper manner. Again, awareness is the key.

What are the biggest areas of counterfeit growth?

Handbags are always big. And, as an example of intellectual property pirating, we’ve always seen a lot of growth in reproduced DVDs.

Where have you seen the greatest success in enforcement?

We’ve done more seizures with clothing items than in any other area. There was one seizure that netted 19 tractor trailers of fake clothing. Success can also be measured in the police department’s role as a deterrent. We made a sizable seizure of auto parts and made some arrests and since that one incident, we haven’t seen any others like it. Word got out.

How do we need to adjust our message to meet the evolving problem?

It’s the same message, but I think we need to adjust the volume: everybody has to be aware of what they are buying and from whom. They need to be more cognizant of the products they purchase and the effects of buying fakes.

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Purveyors of ‘fake pharma’ are punished by an international coalition

November 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

The counterfeit pharmaceutical industry was just slipped a mickey, care of the international law enforcement community.

It was banner week for a global coalition combating the sale of sham pharmaceuticals on the Internet. A group of agencies from 24 countries came together for five days in “Operation Pangea II,” an effort to curb web sales of counterfeit and illicit medicines that resulted in several arrests and the seizure of thousands of harmful products.

The weeklong operation, which began on November 16th, dismantled 72 websites, confiscated 167,000 illicit and counterfeit pills, and left 22 individuals under investigation in its wake, according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) press release.

The domestic team was a veritable acronym stew of U.S. organizations, an alphabet-agency soup, with contributions from the FDA, the DEA, ICE, USPIS (Postal Inspection Service), and the CBP (Customs and Border Protection).

On the international side, under the larger umbrella of INTERPOL and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) nimbly-titled International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT, inviting the question: what comes first the underlying org or the clever acronym), law enforcement agencies kicked down firewalls and crammed flash bangs into the inboxes of suspected peddlers.

The effort targeted the channels of sale and distribution for black market digital pill pushing. The week began with a group web surf, trolling for dodgy sites that sold the bitter pills, and identified 751 separate locations that were engaged in illegal activity. The USPIS and the Universal Postal Union (UPU) shook the contents of more than16,000 packages and turned up thousands of antibiotics, steroids, diet pills, lifestyle drugs – those that treat baldness, ED, wrinkles or acne – and others.

“Consumers seeking a better price or wanting to buy drugs without a prescription often do not know that the drugs they order through the Internet are often manufactured in inferior facilities, with substandard or dangerous ingredients, and with a high likelihood that they will not perform as expected, or worse, will cause harm,” said John Morton, Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for ICE.

Put a tad more bluntly: when you hustle around dodgy sites looking for cheap deals, you most certainly get what you pay for.

Odds are the bunk pills on these sites weren’t manufactured in the most rigorously sterile of settings. The mixing flasks likely carried a little less, if any, of the active ingredient you had hoped to get, or in the worst possible scenario, that you needed. The Petri dishes were caked with a little grime, and though a little fungus may have worked for Alexander Fleming and his discoveryof penicillin, in the remaining history of positive medical developments, the presence of mold isn’t such a good thing.

In the murk of the digital world, it’s easy to behave like deep-sea creatures snapping at the brightest stimuli. Flashy banner ads touting the lowest possible prices for prescription pills make it easy to lose sight of the nefarious nature of a transaction that, were it to occur in the brick and mortar realm, would involve crumpled brown bags passed in still running cars while both parties glance over their shoulders.

Operation Pangea II is an exemplar for future efforts to fight the fake trade. And while multi-pronged, cooperative initiatives yield fantastic results, those with the greatest power to wipe out this epidemic are the would-be purchasers.

Swim to the surface and buy responsibly.

Read the full story.

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MSN Money’s Elizabeth Strott takes a stroll down Canal Street and discovers the global consequences of counterfeiting

November 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

In Fake goods: Low prices, big problems, Elizabeth Strott has written a terrific overview of this global epidemic on the MSN Money webpage and it begins with a seemingly innocent trip to Canal Street, a trip many consumers of fake goods have made before. This is where it often begins, the front line of counterfeit sales – the back alleys and vans with tinted windows – where the haggling over knockoffs takes place. It is the perfect point of departure and Strott broadens the scope of her article to illustrate the global reach of fake trade as well as its implications for both sides of the purchase agreement.

Strott quotes Valerie Salembier, publisher of Harper’s Bazaar and founder of the Harper’s Bazaar Anti-Counterfeiting Alliance, on the size of the epidemic as well as easy ways to determine whether goods are authentic or not.

When you buy fake goods, it is never as simple as the handbag or the luggage you walk away with. Strott makes this clear. There are economic repercussions and human rights violations that go unnoticed when you make a small purchase. All those little transactions add up – $650 billion lost each year in legitimate business.

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