Police raid shops selling fake branded laptops and mobile phone equipment
The slogans and special offers emblazoned on the windows of technology retailers in London’s Tottenham Court Road leave shoppers in no doubt that this will be a “tablet Christmas”.
The must-have devices are at the forefront of a battle between high-street retailers over who will win the most customers this festive season, with millions of people expected to unwrap a tablet computer on 25 December. But behind the garish signs on this central shopping street, and in other locations around the capital yesterday, the police are trying to keep the fight honest by tackling the blight of counterfeit electronic goods.
When police officers and trading standards officials finally get the keys to an unremarkable-looking Tottenham Court Road outfit selling cheap tablets, smartphones and mobile phone chargers, they find the technological equivalent of Tutankhamun‘s tomb. In the dingy, windowless basement is a rabbit warren of tiny rooms, each stashed high with brown cardboard boxes, many bearing the slogan “Made in China”.
The contents include “Fujitsu”-branded phone chargers and other accessories through to the newest tablets from Samsung, Sony and Microsoft. Many are suspected of being fake and are subjected to detailed examination by representatives of the brands who have joined the raid. Tablets will outsell personal computers for the first time this Christmas, retail experts are predicting, driven by consumers’ desire for on-the-go convenience and the affordability of a new wave of gadgets costing less than £100. Fakes will cost even less.
Manufacturers of fake goods – often based abroad – have been busy ensuring that they are geared up to meet spiralling demand for cut-price gadgets. Electronic goods have become a high-growth segment in Europe’s trade in counterfeit products.
In early morning raids, detectives from the City of London police arrested four men at their homes before searching commercial properties across the capital suspected of being used to store and sell fake branded laptops and mobile phone equipment such as chargers and batteries. It is the biggest raid yet carried out by the PoliceIntellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) to tackle the growing problem of counterfeit goods. Established with a nationwide remit, the unit was set up in September to protect UK industries that produce legitimate physical goods, as well as films, games and music downloads.
Supervising the operation, Detective Sergeant Kevin Kirton of the City of London police said: “[Fake] electrical goods can be extremely dangerous, but they are also depriving genuine retailers of revenue – with a negative impact on the economy. Often the proceeds of organised crime like this are helping to finance other illegal activities. And of course consumers who buy fake goods lose their usual consumer rights.”
In China this year, flight attendant Ma Ailun, 23, was killed by an electric shock in July when she answered a call on her iPhone while it was recharging through an imitation charger.
Given the sums at stake this Christmas – more than 8m tablets were sold in the UK last year – brands are co-operating closely with police. The investigation was launched following a referral from Hewlett-Packard, with PIPCU accompanied by Trading Standards officers from the boroughs of Camden, Lewisham, Newham and Redbridge, and representatives not only from HP but also Sony and Samsung. The operationally independent unit, based at the City of London Police, is initially being funded by the Intellectual Property Office — part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The suspects – in their late 20s and early 30s – were taken separately to a local police station for questioning and later bailed, while documentation and suspected counterfeit goods were seized from separate storage units and shops.
Detective Superintendent Bob Wishart of PIPCU said: “Intellectual property crime is costing our economy hundreds of millions of pounds and putting legitimate businesses in danger. PIPCU is committed to combating this fraudulent activity and today has targeted a suspected criminal gang that we believe to be profiting from selling fake goods online and in London shops.”
The Electrical Safety Council says that a third of the 2m counterfeit electrical goods seized at EU borders last year were prevented from coming into the UK, but there was an increase in the volume of seized counterfeit headphones, mobile phone accessories and game consoles. Although a significant number of items have been seized, the ESC believes that millions of dangerous products could be on sale in the UK.
With wages failing to keep pace with inflation, an ESC spokeswoman acknowledged that pressure on family budgets make purchases of counterfeits a temptation.
“We know Christmas is an expensive time of year and families can find themselves tight for cash with expensive presents and festivities. Fake goods are often a waste of money and, much more seriously, they can injure or even kill. Don’t take the chance and put your family in danger. The ultimate price is far too high if something goes wrong.”
Separately, the National Trading Standards Board has warned that its “Safety at Ports” team say that unsafe toys and electrical goods that fail to comply with UK safety laws continue to enter the UK. The City of London police will no doubt be busy again next Christmas.