By Jan-Maarten Laurijssen, Co-founder & COO at Pointer Brand Protection
In 2019 the British press reported that a man using a fake police ID badge had managed to gain entry to the house of a family in Birmingham. He was spotted stealing money and pursued out by the homeowner.1 Unfortunately he got away on that occasion and so it remains unknown just how many other people the imposter had employed the same trick against. Sadly, this kind of story is far too common. The sale of counterfeit uniforms and badges, and the impersonation of officials, has become a damaging and alarming trend with similar stories in most countries.
Why Stopping Fake Uniforms is Important
In their 2019 survey on public trust, the polling company Ipsos MORI found that scientists, doctors, armed forces personnel, and police officers were four of the five most trusted professions around the world.2 It’s perhaps not coincidental that these professions all wear a uniform of some kind, be it white lab coats or more elaborate costumes. We place a lot of faith in the names and symbols which appear on the clothing of our police, firefighters, and medics, and when we’re victims of a crime or suffer an accident we look to them for support, recognizing them from their appearance. If they approach us then we also have a learned belief that they are acting honestly and truthfully, something which is also reinforced by their uniform.
While the impersonation of police officers, firefighters, and medical officials is generally considered a serious crime in its own right, there are also several additional issues arising from the illegitimate use of IP belonging to public services. In the case of fake uniforms and products branded with related trademarks, we can split the issue broadly into cases of criminal impersonation and commercial opportunism.
In terms of impersonation, the reasons why people choose to pretend to be firefighters or police officers are complex but generally some deliberate fraud is involved. Here in Amsterdam, for example, the authorities have warned of criminals operating as fake police officers.3 These bogus officials stop tourists in order to inspect whether they have counterfeit money, tell them it is and then confiscate it. Dressed sometimes in uniform and sometimes in plain clothes, these imposters prey on the credulity of visitors who are unfamiliar with the official police uniforms and badges. The Netherlands is certainly not alone in this regard though and there are similar cases of fake police in the UK,4 the US,5 and France, to name a few.6
One of the alarming online trends which facilitates people pretending to be trusted officials is the sale of badges and uniforms. Our research suggests that badges for virtually every police force are available cheaply and in great numbers from Chinese wholesale platforms. Whether you wish to purchase realistic looking badges for New York’s detectives or Italy’s Carabinieri, Chinese factories are ready to supply fakes in huge numbers.
In fact, the buying of counterfeit police badges is such a well-known practice that even the police themselves have participated. One news story from 2009 revealed that New York police officers had taken to buying copies of their own badges so they didn’t lose the more expensive originals.7 If such fakes are so easily purchased online by the police then they are just as easy to find for criminals.
In addition to the serious crime of impersonation, the illegitimate use of IP to sell merchandise and make money from public agencies has also become much more common with the growth of eCommerce.
Trademarks, Merchandise, and the Emergency Services
The United States represents an interesting case for the use of trademarks by emergency services because it demonstrates both how they can be used and how popular they can become among the public. In 1998, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) became the first American police unit to register its shield and name as trademarks. They weren’t the first agency to do this, however, as the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had already taken the same steps. In fact, the Canadian Mounties were reportedly already earning millions of dollars from tourist merchandise before the LAPD sought to protect their own interests.8 At the time of registration though there was little commercial opportunity for American police and the marks weren’t extensively used on merchandise.
The situation changed in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, however, when the badges of all the services in New York especially became more trusted and more consistently used. The New York Times reported that in the aftermath of the attacks, sales of NYPD and New York Fire Department-branded (NYFD) merchandise rose sharply. By December 2001, from just two stores in Manhattan the NYFD were selling $200,000 a week of official merchandise, but the paper also estimated that these official sales were only around 25% of the branded goods being bought for both NYPD and NYFD products. The paper suggested that as much as $10 million was likely lost as a result of illegitimate trademark usage by vendors selling unofficial commemorative products to New Yorkers and tourists alike.
It was a rapidly evolving situation which taught New York City a lot about the need to protect its own IP, something which has subsequently also been taken up by the likes of the LAPD who founded their own Entertainment Trademark Unit in 2006.9 Numerous other US cities including Detroit, Omaha, and Arlington have all registered trademarks, and although their desire to create commercial opportunities may vary they all still require the protection given by the IP regime.
A search of some of the platforms frequently used by counterfeiters reveals that not only are these branded products easily available, but that they have already sold in great numbers. There are thousands of listings for police-branded merchandise on Aliexpress, with departments from Israel to Denmark available to buy. These two listings for Spanish and Russian police t-shirts demonstrate that even single stores can sell many hundreds of items without being removed.
The problem with unofficially branded goods also exists for other services too. In April 2019, when the fires at Notre Dame cathedral became headline news, the efforts of Parisian firefighters to stop the blazes caught the imagination of the public, some of whom showed solidarity with the Sapeurs Pompiers de Paris by buying items of clothing. Unfortunately, the raised profile of the firefighters also meant that impersonators took advantage of the situation to provide unofficial merchandise.
Although the sale of these products might not seem serious, for public bodies who have an income based on funding rather than commerce, the opportunity to generate revenues which could be reinvested into their work is limited. Allowing others to make money unofficially off their hard work is unfair and deprives them of the same chance for funding. For this reason, rigorous online monitoring and enforcement of IP should be put in place to protect such entities as if they were commercial brands. Likewise, consumers have a duty to buy genuine merchandise and support the efforts of services working to protect and serve them.
While some of the intentions behind these IP crimes may differ from the common brand-centric infringements, the tactics used by the counterfeiters are the same. As with many businesses, those public services who own IP may be suffering from infringement but not have the expertise to stop it. While the police may be able to undertake enforcement for themselves, for health services or the coast guard, for example, the same options are unlikely. This is where brand protection professionals like Pointer can actively assist. Online monitoring and enforcement, investigations, and advice, these are all options open to institutions beyond the business world alone. It’s an intriguing area of work and one where we hope the public and private sectors can start to work more effectively through future collaboration.
We’d be happy to speak with you about how we can help you defend yourself against IP theft. Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org to start the conversation.
9. [ http://www.lapdonline.org/trademark]↩