Countering the Growing Intellectual Property Theft Threat
In 2008, a new federal law creating stricter penalties for criminals who engaged in intellectual property theft was enacted to keep pace with globalization, e-commerce, and technology advances.
Fast forward to 2016: Technological advances continue at an even faster pace, dramatically increasing the threat posed by criminals who steal trade secrets, produce and/or traffic in counterfeit products, and infringe on copyrights. One important factor in this increase is the global expansion of online marketplaces, which aids international and domestic criminal organizations in trafficking in counterfeit goods.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced a new strategy that involves partnering more closely with businesses in an effort to combat these types of crimes more effectively. Said Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “Through this new approach, we intend to provide information and resources to individuals and companies that will help them identify and disrupt attempts on their intellectual property, extend greater protection to American commerce as a whole, and safeguard the health and safety of individual Americans.”
And the FBI—working with its investigative partners at the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (NIPRCC)—will play an integral part in this strategy.
The Bureau has already been collaborating for years with brand owners, copyright holders, and trademark holders because it knows the harm that intellectual property theft causes: legitimate businesses lose billions of dollars in revenue and suffer damaged reputations, consumer prices go up, the U.S. and global economies are robbed of jobs and tax revenue, product safety is reduced, and sometimes lives are even put at risk. FBI efforts with these businesses to date have involved shared information, aggressive criminal initiatives based on current or emerging trends, and investigations.
Under the FBI’s new strategy, it is expanding efforts to work with third-party entities—such as online marketplaces, payment service providers, and advertisers—that may inadvertently enable the activities of criminals.
- Third-party online marketplaces draw consumers to their sites with competitive pricing and a sense of security, but criminal counterfeiters exploit these marketplaces to gain an appearance of legitimacy, access to far-reaching advertising, and efficient sales transactions.
- Payment service providers—such as credit card payment processors and related payment alternatives—also give counterfeiters the appearance of legitimacy when they provide payment options that consumers mistakenly interpret to mean that the businesses they service are legitimate.
- Online advertising systems and platforms enable website owners to outsource the process of monetizing their website traffic. Criminals have begun exploiting advertising as an alternative revenue stream, drawing traffic to their sites by offering counterfeit products for sale or pirated digital content for download.
The benefits of working with these third-party entities? According to David Farquhar, who heads up the Bureau’s Intellectual Property and Cyber-Enabled Crimes Unit at the NIPRCC, “We’re not only broadening awareness of the crime problem, we can also obtain information about crime trends, get investigative leads that will help us identify criminals, and collect evidence of criminal activity.” Farquhar added that the FBI will assist these companies with refining their own analytical tools and techniques for uncovering fraud.
Also new in the approach to intellectual property theft is an enhanced relationship between our criminal and counterintelligence personnel when working theft of trade secrets cases. A trade secrets case worked under the counterintelligence program—which occurs when the involvement of state-sponsored actors is suspected—will be referred to a criminal squad if no state sponsorship is found. And when criminal investigators begin to suspect the involvement of a state sponsor, the case will be referred to the counterintelligence squad. The goal is to contain and/or even prevent the theft as quickly as possible, no matter who’s behind it.
The FBI—in partnership with DOJ, the NIPRCC, and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad—will continue to place a premium on intellectual property theft and strive to find new and effective ways to combat it.