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Intellectual Property Rights

ICE, European partners seize 328 Internet domains selling counterfeit goods in coordinated operation

WASHINGTON – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and several law enforcement agencies in Europe, coordinated by the European Police Office (Europol), announced the seizure of 328 domain names in two related operations Wednesday. The seized domain names were associated with websites illegally selling counterfeit merchandise online to unsuspecting consumers.

An iteration of Operation In Our Sites (IOS), HSI participated in Project American Icons and seized 177 domain names for websites selling counterfeit trademark merchandise manufactured by American-owned companies. Undercover purchases were made for a host of products from nine American trademark holders: Rosetta Stone, NFL, BEATS by Dre, Tiffany & Co, Nike, Ergo, MLB, NBA and NHL. Once the rights holders confirmed that the purchased products were counterfeit or otherwise illegal, seizure orders for the domain names of the websites that sold these goods were obtained from federal magistrate judges.

Europol participated in Project Transatlantic Two, along with several European member states such as Belgium, France, Romania and the United Kingdom, and executed coordinated seizures of 151 foreign-based top-level domains such as .be, .eu, .fr, .ro, and .uk. Both operations were coordinated by the HSI-led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) in Washington.

"American Icon/Transatlantic Two is a great example of the tremendous cooperation between ICE, our international partners at the IPR Center and the Department of Justice," said Mark Witzal, deputy director of the IPR Center. "In order to go after these criminals who are duping unsuspecting shoppers all over the world, these international partnerships are vitally important. Counterfeiting is a global problem that affects us all."

The IPR Center and Europol received leads from various trademark holders regarding the infringing websites. Those leads were disseminated to four investigating HSI offices in Denver, El Paso (Texas), Newark (N.J.) and New Orleans and to the investigating Europol member states.

"It is important to stop the sale of counterfeit products over the Internet as it undermines legitimate businesses and also often causes health and safety risks to consumers," said Rob Wainwright, director of Europol. "This successful transatlantic operation sends an important message to the criminals showing them that they cannot hide despite the fact that they are operating via the Internet."

The domain names seized are now in the custody of the governments involved in these operations. Visitors typing those domain names into their Web browsers will now find a banner that notifies them of the seizure and educates them about federal intellectual property crime.

In addition to the domain name seizures, officials identified PayPal accounts used by the infringing websites. Proceeds in excess of $150,000, received through the identified PayPal accounts, have been seized by the investigating HSI offices.

IOS is a sustained law enforcement initiative that protects consumers by targeting the sale of counterfeit merchandise on the Internet. Since its inception exactly three years ago, IOS has resulted in 2,252 domain name seizures of which 1,624 have been forfeited to the U.S. government. Once seized, visitors to the sites are redirected to a banner notifying them that the site was seized for possible intellectual property violations. The banner has been viewed over 117 million times. Additionally, a public service announcement, launched in April 2011, is linked to the banner on each of the 1,624 forfeited websites. The banner and video educate those who visit the site about the criminal consequences of trafficking in counterfeit goods and the economic impact that crime has on the U.S. and global economies.

The federal forfeiture process affords individuals who have an interest in seized domain names an opportunity to challenge the seizure by filing a claim with the seizing agency. If no claims are filed, the domain names can be administratively forfeited and become the property of the U.S. government.

U.S. attorneys' offices in the District of Colorado, District of New Jersey, Western District of Texas and Eastern District of Louisiana issued the warrants for the seizures. Significant assistance was provided by the Department of Justice's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section.

The HSI-led IPR Center is one of the U.S. government's key weapons in the fight against criminal counterfeiting and piracy. Working in close coordination with the Department of Justice Task Force on Intellectual Property, the IPR Center uses the expertise of its 21-member agencies to share information, develop initiatives, coordinate enforcement actions and conduct investigations related to intellectual property theft. Through this strategic interagency partnership, the IPR Center protects the public's health and safety and the U.S. economy.