Make it a crime to buy fake goods, police say

By pouring cash into the coffers of counterfeiters shoppers are supporting criminal gangs, and now police say it could be time to criminalise buying illegal copies.

Ibrahim Behzad, director of intellectual property rights management for Dubai’s Department of Economic Development, inspects seized counterfeit products in Al Garhoud. The products are destroyed and recycled. Antonie Robertson / The National
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DUBAI // Handbags bearing the LV logo, watch brands worn by the wealthy and Nike footwear promoted by sport stars – tourists hit Dubai’s souqs for knock-offs of them all.

But by pouring cash into the coffers of counterfeiters shoppers are supporting criminal gangs, and now police say it could be time to criminalise buying illegal copies.

Senior officers said that in the fight against intellectual property crime, the public have been slow to help because the lure of cheap goods is too tempting.

The officers want rules to criminalise purchasers of illegal fakes and curbs on the multimillion dirham trade’s links to organised crime and terrorist groups.

Maj Gen Abdul Quddus Obaidli, whose Dubai Police unit is tackling counterfeit goods, said tourists and residents are either unaware of the criminal enterprises they are supporting or do not care.

“Whoever buys counterfeit goods is involved in ensuring the constant battle between Government and criminals who sell fake products,” he said.

At present, selling fake goods is illegal but buying them is not. Sellers are typically fined Dh15,000 for the first offence, Dh30,000 for the second and arrested for subsequent offences.

Maj Gen Obaidli said: “I support introducing legislation to make purchasing fake products an offence.

“It is hard to persuade people that buying or owning fake products is intellectual theft. Residents here should think of it as a social responsibility, and that it’s as bad as stealing.”

He said counterfeiters sell fake medicines and cosmetics that can damage health.

“Imagine the consequences of distributing counterfeit medication, cosmetics or expired canned food. It poses serious health risks,” he said.

This month, Dubai’s Department of Economic Development (DED) investigators announced they had closed down 8,894 social networking accounts used to sell counterfeit goods last year.

The shift online comes at a time when DED and police are raiding shops and flats where stocks of fakes are high.

Now, sellers often approach shoppers on the street and offer to send them pictures by WhatsApp or give them an Instagram link to view hundreds of bags. Then, they deliver goods to the buyer’s home or hotel.

“The public should be co-operating with police and reporting criminals distributing fake products, especially criminals who try to hide them [fakes] from police and invent new ways to sell.”

Among the recent arrests by Dubai Police was that of a 28-year-old Syrian man caught with 10,800 fake Lancome lipsticks and a stash of counterfeit Loreal cosmetics.

In another case, a Syrian and his Bengali accomplice were arrested for selling e-cigarettes.

Majed Al Jallaf, a criminal lawyer, said “organised criminals use money from fake goods to fund human trafficking and even prostitution”.

Most countries target the counterfeiters rather than buyers, but in France – home to many of the world’s luxury goods designers – tourists and residents can be fined up to €300,000 (Dh1.18 million).

Italy has also targeted and fined buyers during summer campaigns, and while the UK’s border agency confiscates fakes, if detected, the country decided against criminalising buying after a review in 2010.

However, Mr Al Jallaf said: “People do not understand the hidden effects of the fake products industry. The counterfeiting industry has expanded in recent years, with quite different consequences on the economy and the public’s health.

“Introducing a law that criminalises buyers and sellers of fake goods will crack down on the people involved in the counterfeit industry.”

Ibrahim Behzad, director of intellectual property rights protection at DED, said the focus remains on sellers at present.

“DED responds whenever we receive a tip-off about such practices,” he said.

“ We have confiscated counterfeit products from warehouses and apartments across Dubai. Cooperation from the public and traders will help us protect consumers and traders.”