The digital world in which we spend hours immersed in every day has been responsible for countless improvements in our lives, whether that is streamlining operations, opening new markets, or simply connecting with people across the world. For organizations, whether big or small, established or startups, it is the heartbeat of their business – without the global connectivity that the digital landscape brings, they simply would not exist today.
In his book Business at The Speed of Thought published back in 1999, Bill Gates predicted that the Internet would revolutionize how businesses connected and interacted with their customers in the future. “Technology not only helps us automate mundane and routine jobs/processes, but also creates efficiency through a well-integrated flow of information, helping people share knowledge and experiences” Gates wrote in one of his chapters, forecasting that new digital forms of communication would be prevalent. Two decades later and we can see all around us the impact of that digitalization of communication. Gates wasn’t the only one who saw the digital revolution and the impact it would have. Zuckerberg, Page, Brin, Dorsey and Bezos can all be classed as digital pioneers who created business models that have shaped our lives and made Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon multi-billion dollar global organizations and household names.
The key to the success of any digital platform is communication. The speed, accuracy and security of sending messages from A to B underpins all digital platforms, none more so that social media. Like it or loathe it, social media is at the heart of any communication strategy a business has today. Unless an organization has a voice in the digital space, it cannot be heard. Social Media is a low-cost, high-return channel. The barriers to entry are almost non-existent and the impact can be felt, and measured, in real-time. For the traditional marketing agencies, the contagious adoption of social media has required a major shift in their business model.
But just as brand holders have found the appeal of social media attractive for reaching new audiences and promoting their products and solutions, so to have the fraudsters. IP infringers use the same tactics as genuine brands to drive traffic to their websites which includes having social media strategies and investment in social media advertising. Whilst the platforms do what they can to remove infringing material, it requires a comprehensive social media monitoring strategy that is able to detect users and content that can potentially divert customers from legitimate sources and damage revenues and reputations.
The rapid growth of social media has in part been down to how easy it is to create an account and start to engage and communicate. Virtually no barriers to entry also means it is easy for fraudsters to create profiles, and even buy followers relatively inexpensively, that are designed to defraud brand holders, whether that is through the sale of counterfeit goods or through harvesting of personal and financial information. Either way, the potential damage it can cause a legitimate brand is significant. Consequently, it has never been more important for any online brand to have a strategy in place that actively looks to reduce the impact of intellectual property abuse through social media.
In a report published in 2019, GhostData found over 56,000 active accounts on Instagram alone that were promoting counterfeit products. With the rapid growth in users on the platform since the publication of that report, the problem today will be significantly greater – a simple search for a luxury or high-end brand brings up dozens of accounts where the promoted products appear questionable.
The growing trend of influencers, individuals who have built their own brand through promoting their lifestyles and interests through social media, is now also in the spotlight. Whilst for many brand holders, actively engaging with high profile individuals to promote their products or services is a very cost-effective marketing tool, there have also been instances of where they have been used to infringe on a brand and even promote counterfeit goods.
As part of an investigation for its Panorama programme, BBC News found individuals who have built significant followings, promoting guides on how to commit online fraud. One said influencer, when contacted by the BBC researchers, offered to build a fake website, and provide 4,000 phishing texts designed to harvest personal and financial details for just over £100.
In another investigation, conducted along with Police and Trading Standards in the UK, thousands of counterfeit items were seized, some of which had been promoted by social media influencers, who had risen to fame on virtual reality shows and have gained over 2 million followers on their digital channels. Whilst some of the influencers when confronted by the BBC denied ever receiving payment for the promotion, they did concede that they knew the products were fake.
For trademark holders, understanding how a brand is being promoted and perceived is key. Social media is one of the most important weapons in the competitive battlefield, but it can very easily and very quickly become the Achilles heel for an organization if they do not have a control over the messaging or the delivery. The importance of having a robust social media monitoring strategy is now more important than ever. The fraudsters and IP infringers constantly change their tactics to try to stay one step ahead of the authorities as well as the brand holders, which is why working with an expert in the detection and enforcement of actions against IP abuse and fraud is essential.
Over the coming weeks we will explore some of the more specific issues and mitigating strategies that can be used by organizations to tackle the issues caused by fraudsters using social media channels.
Author: Stuart Fuller, Senior Director, Global Commercial Operations, OpSec Security