Two years ago, I set off from central London on the Tube and ended up somewhere in the east of the city walking into a self-storage unit to meet a guy that had 2,000 luxury polo shirts for sale. And as I made my way down the corridor, a broken, blinking light made it just like the cliche scene from a gangster movie. Our man was early, and he was waiting for me in front of a unit secured with four padlocks down the side. On our opening exchange, it was like a verbal sparring match where he threw the first punches. Who was I? Did I have a business card? And where was I going to sell? And then, he just started opening up, and it was my turn. Where were the polo shirts coming from? What paperwork did he have? And when was his next shipment going to arrive? I was treading the fine line between asking enough questions to get what I needed and not enough for him to become suspicious, because what he didn't know is that I'm a counterfeit investigator,
and after 20 minutes or so of checking over the product for the telltale signs of counterfeit production — say, badly stitched labels or how the packaging had a huge brand logo stamped all over the front of it — I was finally on my way out, but not before he insisted on walking down to the street with me and back to the station.
And the feeling after these meetings is always the same: my heart is beating like a drum, because you never know if they've actually bought your story, or they're going to start following you to see who you really are. Relief only comes when you turn the first corner and glance behind, and they're not standing there. But what our counterfeit polo shirt seller certainly didn't realize is that everything I'd seen and heard would result in a dawn raid on his house, him being woken out of bed by eight men on his doorstep and all his product seized. But this would reveal that he was just a pawn at the end of a counterfeiting network spanning three continents, and he was just the first loose thread that I'd started to pull on in the hope that it would all unravel.
Why go through all that trouble? Well, maybe counterfeiting is a victimless crime? These big companies, they make enough money, so if anything, counterfeiting is just a free form of advertising, right? And consumers believe just that — that the buying and selling of fakes is not that big a deal. But I'm here to tell you that that is just not true. What the tourist on holiday doesn't see about those fake handbags is they may well have been stitched together by a child who was trafficked away from her family, and what the car repair shop owner doesn't realize about those fake brake pads is they may well be lining the pockets of an organized crime gang involved in drugs and prostitution. And while those two things are horrible to think about, it gets much worse, because counterfeiting is even funding terrorism. Let that sink in for a moment.
Terrorists are selling fakes to fund attacks, attacks in our cities that try to make victims of all of us. You wouldn't buy a live scorpion, because there's a chance that it would sting you on the way home, but would you still buy a fake handbag if you knew the profits would enable someone to buy bullets that would kill you and other innocent people six months later? Maybe not.
OK, time to come clean. In my youth — yeah, I might look like I'm still clinging on to it a bit — I bought fake watches while on holiday in the Canary Islands. But why do I tell you this? Well, we've all done it, or we know someone that's done it. And until this very moment, maybe you didn't think twice about it, and nor did I, until I answered a 20-word cryptic advert to become an intellectual property investigator. It said "Full training given and some international travel." Within a week, I was creating my first of many aliases, and in the 10 years since, I've investigated fake car parts, alloy wheels, fake pet grooming tools, fake bicycle parts, and, of course, the counterfeiter's favorite, fake luxury leather goods, clothing and shoes.
And what I've learned in the 10 years of investigating fakes is that once you start to scratch the surface, you find that they are rotten to the core, as are the people and organizations that are making money from them, because they are profiting on a massive, massive scale. You can only make around a hundred to 200 percent selling drugs on the street. You can make 2,000 percent selling fakes online with little of the same risks or penalties. And this quick, easy money then goes on to fund the more serious types of crime, and it pays the way to making these organizations, these criminal organizations, look more legitimate.
So let me bring you in on a live case. Earlier this year, a series of raids took place in one of my longest-running investigations. Five warehouses were raided in Turkey, and over two million finished counterfeit clothing products were seized, and it took 16 trucks to take that all away. But this gang had been clever. They had gone to the lengths of creating their own fashion brands, complete with registered trademarks, and even having photo shoots on yachts in Italy. And they would use these completely unheard-of and unsuspicious brand names as a way of shipping container loads of fakes to shell companies that they'd set up across Europe. And documents found during those raids found that they'd been falsifying shipping documents so the customs officials would literally have no idea who had sent the products in the first place. When police got access to just one bank account, they found nearly three million euros had been laundered out of Spain in less than two years, and just two days after those raids, that gang were trying to bribe a law firm to get their stock back. Even now, we have no idea where all that money went, to who it went to, but you can bet it's never going to benefit the likes of you or me.
But these aren't just low-level street thugs. They're business professionals, and they fly first class. They trick legitimate businesses with convincing fake invoices and paperwork, so everything just seems real, and then they set up eBay and Amazon accounts just to compete with the people they've already sold fakes to.
But this isn't just happening online. For a few years, I also used to attend automotive trade shows taking place in huge exhibition spaces, but away from the Ferraris and the Bentleys and the flashing lights, there'd be companies selling fakes: companies with a brochure on the counter and another one underneath, if you ask them the right questions. And they would sell me fake car parts, faulty fake car parts that have been estimated to cause over 36,000 fatalities, deaths on our roads each year.
Counterfeiting is set to become a 2.3-trillion-dollar underground economy, and the damage that can be done with that kind of money, it's really frightening ... because fakes fund terror. Fake trainers on the streets of Paris, fake cigarettes in West Africa, and pirate music CDs in the USA have all gone on to fund trips to training camps, bought weapons and ammunition, or the ingredients for explosives. In June 2014, the French security services stopped monitoring the communications of Said and Cherif Kouachi, the two brothers who had been on a terror watch list for three years. But that summer, they were only picking up that Cherif was buying fake trainers from China, so it signaled a shift away from extremism into what was considered a low-level petty crime. The threat had gone away. Seven months later, the two brothers walked into the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and killed 12 people, wounded 11 more, with guns from the proceeds of those fakes. So whatever you think, this isn't a faraway problem happening in China. It's happening right here.
And Paris is not unique. Ten years earlier, in 2004, 191 people lost their lives when a Madrid commuter train was bombed. The attack had been partly funded by the sale of pirate music CDs in the US. Two years prior to that, an Al Qaeda training manual recommended explicitly selling fakes as a good way of supporting terror cells.
But despite this, despite the evidence connecting terrorism and counterfeiting, we do go on buying them, increasing the demand to the point where there's even a store in Turkey called "I Love Genuine Fakes." And you have tourists posing with photographs on TripAdvisor, giving it five-star reviews. But would those same tourists have gone into a store called "I Love Genuine Fake Viagra Pills" or "I Genuinely Love Funding Terrorism"? I doubt it.
Many of us think that we're completely helpless against organized crime and terrorism, that we can do nothing about the next attack, but I believe you can. You can by becoming investigators, too. The way we cripple these networks is to cut their funding, and that means cutting the demand and changing this idea that it's a victimless crime. Let's all identify counterfeiters, and don't give them our money.
So here's a few tips from one investigator to another to get you started. Number one: here's a typical online counterfeiter's website. Note the URL. If you're shopping for sunglasses or camera lenses, say, and you come across a website like medical-insurance-bankruptcy.com, start to get very suspicious.
Counterfeiters register expired domain names as a way of keeping up the old website's Google page ranking.
Number two: is the website screaming at you that everything is 100 percent genuine, but still giving you 75 percent off the latest collection? Look for words like "master copy," "overruns," "straight from the factory." They could write this all in Comic Sans, it's that much of a joke.
Number three: if you get as far as the checkout page, and you don't see "https" or a padlock symbol next to the URL, you should really start thinking about closing the tab, because these indicate active security measures that will keep your personal and credit card information safe.
OK, last one: go hunting for the "Contact Us" page. If you can only find a generic webform, no company name, telephone number, email address, postal address — that's it, case closed. You found a counterfeiter. Sadly, you're going to have to go back to Google and start your shopping search all over again, but you didn't get ripped off, so that's only a good thing.
As the world's most famous fictional detective would say, "Watson, the game is afoot." Only this time, my investigator friends, the game is painfully real.
So the next time you're shopping online, or perhaps wherever it is, look closer, question a little bit deeper, and ask yourself — before you hand over the cash or click "Buy," "Am I sure this is real?" Tell your friend that used to buy counterfeit watches that he may just have brought the next attack one day closer. And, if you see an Instagram advert for fakes, don't keep scrolling past, report it to the platform as a scam.
Let's shine a light on the dark forces of counterfeiting that are hiding in plain sight. So please, spread the word and don't stop investigating.