“A few days ago, we convicted a woman who was buying anti-micro viral pesticides that were on a lanyard that she claimed would help prevent COVID-19. She was importing these products into the U.S. and then selling these toxic products on eBay.” – IPR Center Director, Steve Francis
For over a decade, the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR) has been at the forefront of the United States government’s response to combating global intellectual property (IP) theft and enforcement of its international trade laws. The IPR Center brings together over 25 global partners, including government and law enforcement agencies focused on IP enforcement.
Steven Francis is the IPR Center Director and is also the Assistant Director for Global Trade Investigations at Homeland Security Investigations, with over 22 years of federal law enforcement experience. This month, I had the opportunity to interview Francis about the work of the IPR Center, particularly during Covid-19, and how the center is partnering with the stakeholder community through initiatives such as Operation Stolen Promise.
We all know it is a challenging time with the pandemic. What are your goals and objectives for the IPR Center during this time?
The IPR Center has three main objectives and missions: 1) promoting national security, including preventing counterfeit goods from entering all supply chains, such as electronic products that are part of the Department of Defense supply chain; 2) promoting economic security, including helping to recover the hundreds of billions of dollars that are lost due to intellectual property theft; and most importantly, especially as we pivot during COVID-19, 3) protecting consumer health and safety from illicit pharmaceuticals, airbags and many other products that are prohibited from entry into the United States.
The IPR Center operates within a task force setting to combat IP theft. During this time, the IPR Center has been working to protect people and has been focused on our public/private partnerships, especially with respect to pirated goods. The IPR Center has been focused on key goals from the U.S. Presidential Memorandum on countering the trafficking and selling of counterfeit goods. We are out in front on these issues and we have been working collaboratively with many agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (Customs), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Postal Service.
When the pandemic came, we were well-situated to counter the sale of counterfeit goods and educate the general public to the hazards of buying counterfeit products. We recently have seen trends in the increase of prohibited, counterfeit products entering the U.S. observed by Customs officers and special agents and we have focused on stopping illicit goods from coming into the country, including medical devices, personal protective equipment (PPE), anti-viral products and pharmaceuticals.
We shifted immediately once the pandemic hit and Homeland Security Investigations, which leads the IPR center, initiated ‘Operation Stolen Promise’, with the goal to combat illicit activity and further protect the health and safety of consumers. This effort collaborates with the private sector on combating counterfeit goods by focusing on securing the supply chain to support the marketplace with manufacturers, brand owners and financial institutions.
The Operation Stolen Promise initiative brought in expertise from IP and global trade as well as financial fraud, cybercrimes, and international operations. As you know, this is a global pandemic with a global audience that is anxious and vulnerable and is being exploited by criminal organizations and related individuals for their own financial gain. It is a global strategy to combat COVID-19 related fraud and, further, to identify, disrupt and dismantle these organizations around the world that are exploiting consumers during this pandemic. We have been working on this initiative with Amazon, Alibaba, Pfizer, Merck, 3M, and Citibank.
Can you provide an update on the IPR Center’s work with partners globally?
Many of our arrests are in coordination with our international partners. One of our first arrests during this time was for a crime where we coordinated with the London Police, which is one of our partners, so could pivot quickly to address this crime. We made an arrest in London after an individual was selling fraudulent products found in the port of Los Angeles. Information was shared between our partners, with the individual being charged in both the U.S. and London. We have made arrests in many other locations and are also working closely with the Chinese Ministry of Public Safety. We want to stop all activity where products are being made to harm the American people.
We have HSI attachés in 53 countries that are embedded with our partners and this is a key part of Operation Stolen Promise. We had to bring in people to help with the interdiction of goods, people to work on cybercrimes, including COVID-19 related domain name issues, and financial crimes, including those tied to exploitation of the government’s new programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Additionally, we continue training led by the IPR Center working on outreach with the U.S. Department of Justice ICHIPS advisors as well as the Department of State, global law enforcement, including Interpol, and enforcement colleagues at the USPTO.
Can you discuss the IPR Center’s coordinated work across the U.S. government on IP enforcement?
The IPR Center is involved in placing our personnel in strategic locations to address crimes that are occurring during this pandemic, which is daunting and challenging for everyone. We work in coordination across the government, including engagement with the IPEC office where we have personnel on detail. Additionally, we have analysts detailed at Customs’ targeting center which is the frontline agency focused on investigations at ports.
We have been fortunate to have the FDA and EPA as partner agencies focused on the regulated industries, which was a partnership that was established well before this pandemic.
Are there updates/stories of IPR Enforcement actions that you want to share that are public?
A few days ago, we convicted a woman who was buying anti-micro viral pesticides that were on a lanyard that she claimed would help prevent COVID-19. She was importing these products into the U.S. and then selling these toxic products on eBay. We worked collaboratively with the EPA on this issue and the woman was charged with a crime. The woman pled guilty, as she knew that she was trying to exploit the public for her own financial gain.
How can stakeholders, including brand owners and consumers, best engage with you and the IPR Center?
We have an open-door policy at the IPR center, and we want to work together. We have ongoing efforts in most sectors and would love to have new companies join these efforts or support and attend our training events. We are always looking for new trends and areas to focus on. One example of this is our work guided by the January 2020 Department of Homeland Security report and the April 2019 Presidential Memorandum focused on addressing counterfeit and pirated goods being sold by online sales platforms and other intermediary groups. This effort focuses on company to company data sharing and establishing best practices for these companies. We continue to work to implement the Administration’s plans, and the private sector plays a key role in partnership. We regularly report to the White House on how we are engaging with the private sector through our work.
We advise consumers to visit https://www.iprcenter.gov/ to report IP theft.
As part of Operation Stolen Promise, we have an email address that is monitored 24 hours a day for stakeholders to report IP theft and related crimes: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, we have a Covid-19 fraud resource website: https://www.ice.gov/topics/operation-stolen-promise