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How Amazon’s Anti-Counterfeit Unit Keeps Fake Products off its Site

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Last year, Amazon identified, seized and disposed of 7 million counterfeit products worldwide. That’s certainly impressive, but what’s perhaps even more impressive is the number of would-be counterfeiters that are stopped before they even have a chance to sell fake items. The Amazon Counterfeit Crimes Unit (CCU), established in June 2020, stopped more than 700,000 attempts by bad actors to create fake selling accounts in 2023. That’s down from 6 million would-be fake account attempts that were thwarted in 2020, the year that the CCU launched — an 88% decrease in less than four years.

One of the biggest factors supporting this dramatic improvement has been the CCU’s proactive approach — not only keeping counterfeit products off the site but also going after counterfeiters “wherever they are, to disrupt or dismantle their organizations,” said Kebharu Smith, Director of the CCU in an interview with Retail TouchPoints.

“We’ve been working up the supply chain, all the way to counterfeit manufacturers in places like China and Turkey, as well as working with law enforcement in the U.S., Europe and China,” said Smith. “We’ve also sued [counterfeiters] in partnership with small, medium-sized and luxury brands.”

The numbers, as revealed in the CCU’s 2024 Brand Protection Report, are impressive:

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  • In 2023, Amazon invested more than $1.2 billion and employed 15,000 people to fight counterfeits, including machine learning scientists, software developers and investigators;
  • The CCU identified, seized and appropriately disposed of 7 million counterfeit items in 2023, up from 6 million in 2022;
  • While the number of products Amazon offers has grown significantly since 2020, there’s been a decrease of more than 30% in valid notices of infringement filed by legitimate brands during this period;
  • Amazon has pursued a total of more than 21,000 bad actors through litigation and referrals to law enforcement since the CCU’s launch; and
  • Stronger cross-border anti-counterfeiting collaborations with brands and Chinese law enforcement led to more than 50 successful raid actions in that country, with 100+ bad actors identified and detained for questioning, leading to numerous criminal convictions carrying fines and prison sentences.

Using Machine Learning and LLMs to Detect Infringements

As with many other types of loss prevention, much of the activity takes place behind the scenes. Amazon’s seller verification processes use document forgery detection, advanced image and video verification and other technology to quickly confirm the authenticity of government-issued identity documents, to ensure they match with the individual trying to sell on Amazon. Ongoing seller vetting innovation includes continued improvements in machine learning-based detection to deter bad actors from creating new Amazon seller accounts.

Additionally, in 2023, the CCU deployed advanced machine learning models that use thousands of signals, including data by brands enrolled in Amazon’s Brand Registry, to weed out intellectual property infringements — including complex visual intellectual property. “These could be logos, shapes and patterns, including logos that have been specifically altered to avoid detection,” said Smith. Use of tools like large language models (LLMs), which “excel at handling complex competitive tasks, allow us to stay ahead of new and emerging bad actors,” said Smith.

Attacking Misconceptions Around Counterfeiting

The CCU also is trying to educate the public about counterfeiting’s dangers. Consumers should know that “counterfeiting is not a victimless crime; it’s often connected to worse schemes, such as human trafficking and money laundering,” said Smith.

To help raise awareness, Amazon, in partnership with the International Trademark Association and DECA, an international organization for high school and college students, launched the Unreal Campaign Challenge. Students were asked to create 60-second public service announcement-style videos about the dangers of purchasing counterfeits; the program reached more than 177,000 DECA members around the globe.

And for those who think counterfeiting is just about fake Coach handbags and other high-end merchandise, Smith stressed that counterfeiting efforts involve a broad range of product types and price points. “We see all different types of products, including apparel, home products and cosmetics, because counterfeiters are always trying to find ways to make a quick buck,” he noted. The CCU has partnered with specific brands to sue counterfeiters, including Champion, Canon and Brother.

“Brother was our first lawsuit in the European Union; the counterfeiter took legitimate ink cartridges and filled them with fake ink,” said Smith. “We’ve also investigated counterfeit toothbrush heads, because health and safety is always a focus.

“Our partnership with Prada was a unique, landmark case, from which we were able to get a plea for a criminal judgment from bad actors operating in China,” Smith added. “The evidence [for the crime] came from overseas, but they were punished in China.”

Amazon has been fighting counterfeiters since at least March 2019, which saw the launch of its “Project Zero” anti-fraud initiative. The company also has joined efforts to combat fake reviews, joining brands including Expedia and Glassdoor to form the Coalition for Trusted Reviews in October 2023.

Learn more about industry efforts to fight fake reviews in this Retail TouchPoints special report.

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