From Street to Screen: The Interplay of Online and Offline Investigations Against Counterfeits

The combination of computers, smartphones, and the internet has revolutionized every aspect of our lives, including our shopping habits. Online shopping, while providing vast trade opportunities, also introduces challenges to brand owners. The trend of the last few years indicates that online sales volumes of counterfeit goods have the potential to exceed those in traditional avenues like street vendors and physical markets. With forecasts surpassing $3 trillion for counterfeit goods in 2022, it is vital for contemporary brand protection teams to embrace a multi-pronged approach, integrating offline probes with live tracking of online behaviors in marketplaces and social platforms to fortify their brand defense.

The vital role of data gathering in online investigations

Online investigations delve into myriad digital channels, including social media, websites, ads, and marketplaces, requiring the intricate handling of diverse data like IP addresses, price lists, server logs, product images, video clips, domain registrations, social profile data, and online transaction traces. Given this complexity, there’s a compelling need for advanced digital data analytics beyond rudimentary spreadsheet manipulations.

Employing a data-centric method for online investigation

Data scientist Samuel Mao delved into the pricing patterns of 2,500 Rolex listings on His research indicated that Rolex needed to manage its production levels strategically to sustain its luxury stature and prevent gray market complications. Although the study may echo basic supply-demand concepts, the complexities of navigating gray market data and its implications for both digital and brick-and-mortar supply chains are profound.

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The offline investigations

Offline investigations center on sourcing information and evidence without relying on digital tools, primarily focusing on tangible records, dialogues, and observed incidents. Key methods include:

Test purchases: Undercover experts buy suspected counterfeit items, assessing their quality and authenticity.
Physical inspections: On-site visits to marketplaces, factories, and storage locations ensure compliance and spot illegal activities.
Covert operations: Investigators, in disguise, embed within counterfeit networks, collecting firsthand evidence.
Interviews: Engaging with supply chain participants, distributors, and consumers offers more profound insights and reveals hidden links.
Document scrutiny: A thorough examination of receipts, invoices, and public records helps trace counterfeit merchandise routes and pinpoint key network figures.

Data analysis in offline investigations  

Data analysis in offline investigations involves examining and interpreting various information and evidence collected from physical sources to identify, track, and take action. While paperwork can be a good start to check for authenticity, the forensic examination of an item can offer definitive proof of counterfeiting and lead to its origin.

For example, a UK-based clothing company known for its SHO brand received a tip-off from a local dealer about counterfeit SHO garments being sold at a discount in the area. However, this operation proved to be far from straightforward. The company’s investigative team commenced with a market survey and then engaged in a rigorous six-month partnership with law enforcement. Ultimately, their efforts culminated in a successful raid against the counterfeit importer.

A holistic approach: The fusion of online and offline investigations

Integrating data from online and offline investigations is crucial because each approach has strengths and weaknesses. Combined, they can provide a more holistic understanding of the counterfeiting activities, strengthen the case, and enforce successful legal actions. The following are key reasons why integration can be helpful.

Data correlation

Information gathered from online investigations, such as suspicious listings, seller profiles, and communication records, can be correlated with offline evidence, like seized counterfeit products, packaging materials, and financial documents. This cross-referencing helps establish links between online activities and physical entities.

Supply chain mapping

Online investigations may identify counterfeit product listings, while offline investigations can uncover the sources of these products through raids on manufacturing facilities, warehouses, and distribution hubs.

Comprehensive view

Combining data from online communications (chats, messages, emails) with offline interviews of individuals involved in the counterfeit trade can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the network’s structure, hierarchy, and communication methods.

Complementary benefits

Online investigations often uncover social media accounts and interactions linked to counterfeiters. By combining this digital information with offline intelligence, investigators can identify meeting points, physical addresses, and operational patterns.

Case study: Counterfeit golf products 

The US Golf Manufacturers Anticounterfeiting Working Group (Golf Group) has long battled global counterfeit golf products. With the surge in e-commerce and direct-to-consumer sales of small batches of counterfeit goods, offline methods have struggled. In early 2021, their online monitoring team zeroed in on ‘Xiuer Golf’ on Taobao as a potential offline investigation hotspot. Deeper probes and sample purchases revealed the store was a hub for numerous online vendors across platforms. In June 2021, the Public Security Bureau (PSB) of Pudong District, Shanghai, mobilized squads to strike at ten spots across four cities simultaneously. The results? The arrest of the manufacturer, workshop owner, and six online vendors. Confiscated in the bust were thousands of fake golf clubs and parts, with the rogue sellers racking up sales of over 4 million yuan (around $630,000).

Jurisdictional limitations

They are a significant obstacle in the integration process. The global nature of the internet means that an investigation may span multiple countries, each with its own set of laws and regulations. This can lead to complications when coordinating efforts across borders, especially when dealing with countries with different legal systems or privacy laws.

Technological constraints

Merging varied systems and diverse data types can be a challenging endeavor. It demands significant effort to align different systems for a cohesive view, especially when much of the offline investigative data is paper-based. For instance, conventional legal management systems might need help to stay updated, considering the rapid pace of legal changes and the multitude of data formats in legal processes.

Challenges posed by counterfeiters

As technology advances, so does the capability of counterfeiters to outsmart the system. For example, counterfeiters are using AI to create sophisticated fakes that are increasingly difficult to detect. They’re also using AI to automate their operations, making them more efficient and harder to track. It’s a high-stake game of cat and mouse, where the mouse continually gets more intelligent and faster.

Strategies to overcome these challenges

Addressing the challenges of integrating online and offline investigations requires a multi-faceted approach. Here are some strategies to consider: Layer Image 

Leveraging technology

Cutting-edge tools and technology are vital links between online and offline investigations. Through AI and machine learning, data from both spheres can be deeply analyzed to uncover patterns and anticipate counterfeiter maneuvers. By monitoring high-risk areas and using AI to connect the dots beforehand, companies can disrupt counterfeiting operations before they cause significant harm.

Collaboration and partnership

Addressing jurisdictional and legal challenges often requires a collective effort. By partnering with local law enforcement, global anti-counterfeit organizations, and legal teams, these challenges can be effectively tackled. Additionally, collaboration with e-commerce platforms can aid in monitoring and removing counterfeit listings, further enhancing the effectiveness of the investigation.

Comprehensive training

It is beneficial for investigators to become proficient in online and offline investigation methods. This includes understanding how to use digital tools for data collection and analysis and traditional investigative methods for physical inspections. A well-rounded skill set is crucial for seamlessly integrating online and offline investigations.

Continuous innovation and adaptation

As counterfeiters’ methods continually evolve, so must investigation strategies. Regular reviews of anti-counterfeit strategies will help identify gaps and areas for improvement. By staying ahead of the curve, companies can ensure they are always prepared to tackle the ever-evolving challenges of counterfeiting.

How can Hubstream help you? 

Hubstream offers a data-driven case management solution for IP/ brand protection teams. Our software has been tailored to meet the unique needs of various industries, including retail, consumer electronics, e-commerce, pharmaceuticals, law enforcement, and government agencies.

With Hubstream, you can benefit from

A centralized data hub to organize and manage online and offline investigation data from various data formats effectively.

An AI-powered case management system to identify patterns and predict activities, assisting you to recognize repeat offenders proactively.

Collecting probative evidence from functional departments and field offices under one data hub for legal proceedings.

Assisting in developing data intelligence and providing insights to facilitate collaboration among IP/brand protection teams, law enforcement, and industry experts.

Our global customer base attests to the effectiveness of Hubstream in providing reliable brand protection solutions. Whether you are a private organization or a public sector entity, we are committed to help you safeguard your brands from online and offline channels.

Interested in learning more?

If you are interested in learning more about Hubstream, please try our risk-free software or contact us at to schedule a demo.