UL does not take counterfeiting of its prized UL Mark lightly. Notice of a potential counterfeit mark quickly becomes a matter for a dedicated team of former law enforcement officers and other professionals that protect the UL brand and its customers’ brands.
Case in point. Hoverboards became one of 2015's most popular gifts. Many of the recipients discovered that their hoverboards overheated, putting themselves and their homes at risk. Right after the holiday season, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission declared many hoverboards unsafe and recommended only the sale of hoverboards that met UL’s recently released requirements.
For many distributors, this posed a challenge to their businesses as they were stuck with large volumes of inventory that did not meet the requirements. Knowing that the only way to sell them was to provide greater assurances to the public, some of them decided to put a counterfeit UL Mark on them.
One such distributor was identified in the City of Industry in Southern California. Working with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, UL’s Brand Protection team located an online business that was selling hoverboards with a fake UL Mark on its outer packaging.
Tracking the online seller led the team to the distributor. UL presented the case to the sheriff’s department, which obtained a search warrant and seized more than 4,800 counterfeit hoverboards in a local warehouse. The distributor has been charged with breaking the law, and the case is advancing to the District Attorney.
In another case, also in partnership with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, UL identified a location as a downtown L.A. wholesaler of counterfeit Apple iPhone adapters. After obtaining search warrants, the sheriff’s department seized 29,000 counterfeit UL marked Apple adapters. This led to criminal charges against the seller and additional civil actions to obtain compensation and reduce the financial incentive for this crime.
“This is a huge global problem, not just for rights holders, but for governments and law enforcement agencies,” explains Warren MacInnis, a former Royal Canadian Police officer and UL’s Director for Brand Protection. “Many deaths and injuries can be traced to counterfeit products that have been caused by electrocution, car and airplane part failures, alcohol poisonings and more.”
The complexity of counterfeiting only continues to grow. While once counterfeits were limited primarily to luxury goods, today travel chargers and lithium-ion batteries for mobile phones, as well as power adapters, are some of the most commonly counterfeited products.
Moreover, the growth in e-commerce and the global supply chain contributes to the expansion of counterfeiting, as smaller shipments arrive directly at the consumer’s doorstep, making them more difficult to track.
“It’s death by ten thousand cuts once counterfeit products get past the border,” notes MacInnis. “The keys to combatting counterfeiting are strong intellectual property protection, intelligence-led investigations and effective training programs for law enforcement agencies. To be successful, we need to follow the path back to factories and work with local authorities, online sellers and retailers.”
Education, partnership and enforcement drive the work of UL’s Brand Protection team. This professional group starts their investigations using a database to identify what products are coming in, what products have been detained, who was the shipper, who was the importer, who was the exporter and other relevant information.
UL also sources investigations by taking complaints from citizens and private investigators who look into potential targets in their immediate areas.
Social media helps the investigative process. “Most people air out all of their dirty laundry one way or another,” observes Jason Daniels, a UL Senior Investigation Manager. “For the majority of investigations, social media provides additional data to help get information on targets.”
After completing a preliminary investigation, the UL team determines whether they can present a case to law enforcement based on different factors, such as how much product is being moved. In addition, the UL team will weigh doing a full investigation with law enforcement or handle it on its own through a civil process.
UL’s Brand Protection program comes as a value-added service for customers along with its certification program. Many of UL’s largest customers have their own brand protection teams, and in many cases, UL conducts joint investigations with its customers.
Using its relationships with the public and private sectors coupled with investigative skillsets and a global presence, UL can support its customers in protecting their brands.
While UL pursues cases of economic fraud, risks to health and safety bring out the passion in UL brand protection team. Law enforcement and prosecutors are also interested in pursuing cases that impact personal health and safety.
With 22 billion UL Marks put on products around the world every year, protecting the UL brand ultimately helps to protect people. Getting counterfeit products off the market ultimately makes the world a safer place.