Bottling it – how one simple action can damage a brand

There is no doubt that global sports stars carry significant weight when it comes to which products they do and don’t engage with or endorse. Some of the image rights deals, which include brand endorsements, are often worth more than their contractual relationships to play the sports. But what happens if a player’s actions damage a brand?

There have been plenty of stories over the years of sports stars behaving badly and bringing not only themselves, but their employers and their sponsors into disrepute. The damage to a brand’s value by being associated with such instances of bad behaviour can be immediate and tarnish their reputation for significant periods of time afterwards. Likewise, there are instances of seemingly normal actions that have negative consequences for rights holders.

The problem can quickly spread if action isn’t taken as we have seen in the last week during the European Football Championships. The commercial partners for the tournament pay huge sums of money to be associated with the governing body, UEFA, but also with the players in the tournament. Whilst there will be exclusive “assets” that they get, such as VIP tickets and hospitality, the main benefit the commercial partners get is that through brand exposure to a global audience of hundreds of millions football fans. Gone are the days when relatively local brands, or even regional ones would be the main sponsors – one look at the commercial partners for Euro2020 reveals Qatar Airways, Alipay, Antchain and Gazprom – not necessarily household names across Europe or suppliers of products and services that would be targeted at the tournament team supporters. But the traditional global brands such as Coca-Cola and Heineken are there too, as they are for most major tournaments.

However, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba, undoubtedly two of the biggest (and most expensive based on transfer fees paid) stars of the tournament have inadvertently caused a bit of a sponsorship debate about who holds the power. After Portugal’s victory against Hungary last week, Ronaldo appeared at the press conference and immediately removed the bottle of Coca-Cola from in front of the microphone and replaced them with a bottle of water. Pogba, in a similar move, removed the bottle of Heineken. Whilst their motives may have been genuine (Ronaldo is a health and fitness machine, Pogba a devote muslim), the consequences of their actions resulted in brand damage for Coca-Cola and Heineken respectively, with the former seeing a drop in their share price that reduced the value of the company by over £2 billion. It is very hard to pin that single action to the market valuation as other factors contribute to share price movements but there will have been some impact. On the flip side, a number of other players, seeing an opportunity have moved the bottles into more prominent positions during their interviews, perhaps trying to encourage the sponsors to endorse them.

There have been other high profile guerilla-style brand issues in football through the years – back in the 1974 World Cup, with adidas sponsoring the Netherlands team, their star player Johann Cruyff was endorsed by bitter rivals Puma. Rather than face punitive measures by wearing Puma, Cruyff removed one of the adidas three stripes from his kit and boots, something that only the untrained eye would have seen at the time. In 2013 adidas, who sponsor and have an investment in Bayern Munich, were left fuming after the Bavarian side presented new signing Mario Gotze to the world at a press conference. No issues with that, except Gotze turned up wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the Nike swoosh on. Nobody from Bayern Munich thought that may not be a good idea before allowing him to enter stage left.

The actions this week may get brands thinking about who does hold the power in terms of the sponsorship deal and will no doubt set off a trend that without management could damage the brand value and reputation of some commercial partners.

More words of the dilemma faced by brand holders in the world of sports sponsorship can be read here from Trademark Review.

I’m fairy sure these are fakes….

How scammers use pictures of the real deal to trick online shoppers into parting with their cash

We are not in the business of selling cars, we sell dreams

A picture says a thousand words, so the saying goes, but what if the picture in question is fake, or the picture is real but the product, service or solution doesn’t exist?

One of the major selling points for any online merchant today is to have good imagery. In most instances we want to look at what we are buying, or who we are engaging with, from different angles, as well as reading genuine reviews. You don’t have to go far searching online for tales of woe of where reality is a very different world to what was advertised online, whether that is hotels, cars, clothes or even dates.

But there is a growing trend of fraudsters using images and product descriptions of genuine small businesses, riding off the back of their hard work in building their business then undercutting them and defrauding customers. Not only does this damage the revenues of the genuine businesses but it can also impact negatively on their reputations.

One small business that has seen this happen too often is FantasyWire, so much so that they now have clear warnings on their website that they do not advertise on Social Media and any similar products being advertised and sold are fakes. The artist behind the creations, Robin Wight, has taken years to grow his business only to see fraudsters look to profit from his intellectual property. The most common ruse used is to use Facebook Ads with a picture of a genuine work of Robin’s then direct potential buyers off onto a website to take payment, although the products can also been found on Amazon too (search “fairy wire sculptures”)

The commissioned art that FantasyWire sell starts from around £15,000, whilst the scammers offer their “products” for less than £50 – that in itself should be a major warning sign for any potential customer. If someone does buy one then at best they will get a sub-standard product that is nothing like the photos being used, or at worst they will receive nothing and their personal and financial details will be used in further exploits.

Whilst the artist can report the fake ads to the Social Media networks and the marketplace sites, he has to do each one individually. “They’re asking me to report every leaf off a tree and I’m trying to report a forest”, Wright told the BBC about the issue he faced not only on the fake ads but the overwhelming number of them.

For small businesses, a formal brand protection strategy may be too costly, although where there is clear evidence of damage to revenues and reputation the return on investment is worthwhile. However, one less formal way small businesses can get an idea who is using their IP, such as pictures of products in ads, is to use Google Image Search, where you can upload a picture and Google will search for where it is being used online. It isn’t foolproof but it is free and easy to use, with results appearing immediately and will give businesses an idea on the extent of the issue they face. Social Media networks and market place platforms need to do more to protect brand holders, especially in how they can report clear infringements. It is all too easy for fraudsters to set up their online presence, create fake ads and start defrauding people.

Naturally, we are all after a bargain, but somethings things are simply too good to be true and it pays to do a bit of research before parting with your cash. Not everything is what it seems online and whilst many of us lose our natural skepticism when we are using Social Media, it pays to be cautious – not only are you protecting yourself, but the owner of the real intellectual property and potentially other online shoppers too.

More details of the story can be found on this article by the BBC.

It’s just not cricket..

As COVID-19 related restrictions have started to ease, the return of spectators to major sporting events has been welcome by all. Pilot and test events have seen up to 20,000 at Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup Final in May, whilst the forthcoming European Championships will see even more fans in major grounds around Europe. However, demand for tickets still outstrips supply for domestic and international events, which is why most organisations have invested in technology that has allowed them to stream their games to a much wider audience.

Domestic cricket in the UK has been ravaged by COVID-19 with fans, in severely limited numbers being allowed to watch the game for the first time in over a year last month. The incredibly popular T20 version of the game kicked off its season on Wednesday, with a few hundred fans in the grounds supplemented by thousands watching online. The teams have been providing free streams of all of their games this season, either through their website, YouTube or Facebook.

The first game of the season was the mid-afternoon start between Lancashire and Derbyshire from Old Trafford, streamed via YouTube and the Lancashire Facebook page. With approximately 17,000 fans watching online, the game was rudely interrupted on YouTube by a notice, saying that “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by England and wales cricket borad /Sporta Technologies Pvt.ltd.” Note the ‘wales’ not being capitalised, or the incorrect spelling of board (‘borad’). A few hours later exactly the same thing happened with the YouTube coverage of the games being streamed by Kent and Somerset.

The ECB did not submit a claim to YouTube, and in the words of Lancashire Cricket Club, “It is absolutely clear that no copyright infringement has been made in the streaming of this game”. The ECB vowed to investigate the situation with YouTube.

Digital piracy costs rights holders billion of pounds every year. It is a huge, global issue and platforms such as YouTube have invested significantly in artificial intelligence that enables swift detection and removal of infringing material. However, any specific intellectual property infringement claims against material being hosted or streamed on YouTube has to follow a set process (details here). It quite clearly states that “The copyright owner or agent authorised to act on the owner’s behalf should submit the request” – in other words you cannot submit a claim if you have no material interest in the content. This means only the IP owner or their authorised agent, such as a brand protection company or IP law firm, can request for material to be removed.

YouTube state that “Do not make false claims. Misuse of the takedown webform, such as submitting false information, may result in the suspension of your account or other legal consequences” and then prior to the submission of any claim that “The information in this notification is accurate, and under penalty of perjury, I am the owner, or an agent authorised to act on behalf of the owner, of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed”

However, it appears that YouTube acted on a request not from the rights holder, the ECB, but on a third party who didn’t use a spell checker. This begs the question as to whether the platforms, in their haste to act on removal requests, do not carry out robust enough checks on who is making the claim.

All three teams were able to continue to stream the games via Facebook (it does beg the question whether a similar infringement claim was sent to them but they saw it wasn’t from a genuine rights holder) and fortunately, this wasn’t a paid event, which would have led to refund claims from viewers. Hopefully, an investigation by YouTube, the world’s biggest and most popular video sharing and streaming platform, will clarify what happened and make the necessary tweaks to ensure that it won’t happen again.

Digital piracy is still a huge issue that rights holders and the platform providers are constantly trying to battle, but in the heat of the moment, it is important to ensure that the genuine content isn’t impacted otherwise everyone will be on a sticky wicket.

Just too good to be true…again

We’ve all seen the giveaways on Social Media – whether they are free meals, free holidays, free technology and free cars and we’ve all reacted in the same way, ignoring them. Or have we? Has one particular offer ticked all the boxes and we’ve been tempted?

That’s not a surprise – the amount of personal information available to advertisers on some social media networks means that adds are incredibly targeted today. We can see that in action when you click on a link for a product and then it seems our timeline is awash with similar offers – as we can see from the examples below with these five different ads for the same items that appeared on my timeline within a few days – the legitimacy of the websites hasn’t been verified but that’s another story for another day. This is why social media advertising is an effective solution for many brands – the complex engagement algorithms ensure that we see, frequently, ads for products we like or at least appear to.

The more outlandish the giveaway, the smaller the number of people who engage. However, with over one billion active Social Media users, even a 1% engagement is a million people, all willingly giving away personal (and in extreme cases, financial) data that can be used by advertisers, or worse, sold onto scammers who have more nefarious intentions.

The modus operandi of many of these giveaways is the same. “Like our post, share it with your friends and click on this link so we know where to send the prize”. There is no prize, there is no giveaway. At the best, you will be sharing that personal data, at the worst, by following the link you could infect your machines will all sorts of malicious scripts and programmes that could seriously damage your wealth. The page may look authentic – correct logo, even some branding, but it is so easy to set up as the template of the pages is that of the social media network. People believe that if it is on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter then it must be real. Whilst the networks do their best to remove content that infringes on intellectual property, they often have to work reactively, and that means some damage will be done.

One recent example involved the car manufacturer Toyota, as reported in this article, with the promise of a new car for one lucky person, to commemorate the brand’s 80th birthday. Except their birthday was nearly four years ago and all someone has done is repurposed their marketing from 2017 to make it seem like a new giveaway. That is how easy it is to create these scams. The return on investment for those behind the fake giveaways is minute – personal information is very valuable to rogue parties and so it only needs a handful of people to engage with an ad for the scammers to be in profit.

It isn’t just expensive items that are given away though. One recent example, prior to the return to pubs and restaurants in the UK promised a free meal at a popular chain just for liking/sharing and submitting a few details. With over 50 million Brits unable to eat or drink out since Christmas, the pent up demand to return to something normal was such that no bar or restaurant would need to offer freebies to get people back!

It is unlikely that we will see less of these ads or giveaways, despite our vigilance, which is why we all have a part to play. As Social Media users we can report any ad that ticks the boxes of being suspicious so their abuse teams can investigate; as brand holders we can use monitoring solutions that detect the use of brand names in social media adverts and campaigns and can take action accordingly. But it is important we do something. The ads may have poor spelling, terrible grammar, use misleading pictures and clearly infringe on intellectual property to an extent that they are laughable, but unless we do something they will continue to get more sophisticated and dupe more people.

How brands need to remain socially responsible after the Covid-19 pandemic

In many areas of the world the mass vaccination programme is gathering pace and the impact on the return to a near-normal life is becoming closer day by day. Whilst the positive news of the roll-out of mass vaccinating as well as falling infections rates made headline news, the increase in scams, brand infringements and cyber-attacks hasn’t been far from the surface.

As the lockdown restrictions are lifted slowly for many of us, those who have been hell-bent on exploiting the situation have doubled down on their efforts, shifting tactics from the fear of infection and how to prevent it, to take advantage of the remote lifestyles that we have had to experience. The restrictions placed on society in general has led to a boom in the digital economy as consumers have been driven online.

With so much fear, uncertainty and doubt being spread about the COVID-19 pandemic, many consumers have taken to the Internet to look for testing kits, medicines and of course, vaccines. In the UK today, where the vaccination programme is about to start focusing on the most populous age groups, there is a pent-up demand for the vaccine and that has led to a rise in fake vaccination scams.

Whilst most consumers know that a vaccine is available and being rolled out, some that aren’t in the current, or near future target groups. However, for those who are desperate for a return to a near-normal life or in the hope that concepts like vaccination passports will fast-track access to travel or even sporting and hospitality events, there is still a danger that they will fall foul to the numerous attempts by fraudsters, impersonating health authorities or even the vaccine manufacturers themselves. Scammers and counterfeiters give consumers hope, albeit false, that they have the answers and many have been taken in by this.

Some brand holders, such as Philip Morris International have been waging a war against the detection of illicit and counterfeit goods, albeit in their own industry, for many years. The bootlegging and counterfeiting of tobacco has been a major issue for PMI for over 150 years and they have developed a wealth of experience not only in the detection of products that harm their brand and their customers, but also in working with law enforcement agencies. During the last six months they have been lending their experience, knowledge and know how to other organisations who have been more directly impacted.

Last September in an interview with World Trademark Review, Philip Morris International’s (PMI) Director of Illicit Trade Prevention, Kristin Reif, spoke at length about the changing threat landscape they have seen and how PMI and others have strengthened their Corporate Social Responsibility outreach to protect customers.

“What we saw at the outset of the pandemic was that, true to form, criminals were quickly taking advantage and flooding the market with counterfeit, fraudulent and inferior goods – everything from face masks to gloves to therapeutics. We have a core competency in fighting illicit trade, so it seemed natural for us to get involved. When we looked at our skill sets and competencies, it was clear that we have subject matter expertise in brand integrity so why wouldn’t we try to assist in this area?” said Reif in his interview with WTR.

PMI have been working with organisations such as major pharmaceutical companies, using their resources to develop strategies that both inform customers of the dangers of buying counterfeit and the impact it has on wider society. They view their work as part of their corporate social responsibility, something that extends past just monitoring for counterfeit tobacco.

PMI are not alone in their work. Organisations of all sizes continue to invest in anti-counterfeit programmes, protecting their intellectual property, reputation and ultimately their clients from the harm caused by fraud and scams. However, some firms either choose to ignore the threats associated with their brand or are completely unaware of the dangers. The Covid-19 pandemic is a compelling event for us all – a chance to reset and refocus our social focus.

However, we all have a part to play in the solution. Consumer education cannot be underestimated in a time of fake news, fake advertising and fake products being pushed in front of our collective eyes. Brand holders need to ensure they are doing their part too, monitoring for infringements that could damage consumer confidence as well as harming their reputation. Social responsibility means all of us being part of a solution rather than adding to the problems that the pandemic has caused.

Swimming in the illegal stream

You can never watch enough sport. Well, at least that’s one of my mantras which probably isn’t shared by the three females who I live with. Since lockdown started a year ago, the amount of sport, especially football, available to watch on TV has increased significantly. With football fans being locked out of stadiums for most of that period, the increase in the number of matches that are streamed have been important for supporters, clubs, advertisers and broadcasters. In some aspects the pandemic has led to a win/win situation for those involved in sports broadcasting. But has the amount of readily available streams of live sport had an impact on digital piracy?

Virtually all of the English Premier League games have been shown via subscription-based channels – Sky Sports, BT Sports and Amazon Prime are the rights holders , and an announcement this week stated that every remaining game, or at least until fans can return to stadiums, will be shown live, whilst the BBC will show live Women’s Super League football on a weekly basis. Further down the leagues and fans have been able access a variety of OTT services and club broadcasts.

There’s no doubt it has been successful. If I look at my own club, Lewes, who play in the 7th tier of Men’s football and the 2nd tier of the Women’s game, we have been able to stream our live games to viewers in over 30 countries and bring in valuable revenue on a donation basis. Other clubs, such as tier 5 Bromley have brought in professional broadcast services that costs thousands of pounds per game to produce a full match day show including instant replays and post-match interviews.

Everyone is happy, right? Unfortunately, no. The issue of digital piracy has evolved over the years and whilst our enforced lockdown may have impacted many things in our every day life, it hasn’t appeared to have dampened the demand for illegal streams.

With the number of people now connected to the digital world across the globe exceeding 4.5 billion people, based on active usage in July 2020, or approximately 59% of the world’s population. The digital evolution continues at a pace, driven by the falling cost of mobile internet access and increase in demand for Social Media websites and apps that connect people around the world.

This increased demand for content from global users has been evident in the sports industry where legitimate access to games, matches and events had driven commercial broadcast models. A clear example of this can be seen from the values of the TV rights for the English Premier League which were first negotiated back in 1992 at £191 million for a four season term to the current deal which runs until the end of the 2022 and is worth a staggering £5 billion.

Consequently, the UK broadcast rights holders, such as Amazon, Sky Sports and BT Sports, have put in place commercial models so that they will see a return on their investment. And herein lies the Catch 22 situation. The broadcasters need to innovate to add value to acquire and retain subscribers through new technology or the quality of the experts in the studio and consequently that increases their costs to deliver which means they have to increase the subscription costs. The higher the cost to the consumer, the more likely they will be to search for cheaper options, which leads them to illegal streaming services.

To stop these illegal broadcast channels, the rights holders need to first detect the streams and that is something that has to happen in the moment. The English Premier League removed or blocked over 210,000 live streams in the 2018/19 season, putting pressure on ISPs to block access to servers that are distributing the illegal streams. Whilst the EPL can demonstrate some success which included prosecutions against a number of individuals who were responsible for a large-scale network supplying illicit streaming devices in the UK, it is just the tip of the iceberg. The individuals behind this illegal streaming network were convicted for the common law offence of conspiracy to defraud and received jail sentences totalling 17 years, hopefully a deterrent to others.

Unfortunately, it is still far too easy for non-subscribers to access the live games being transmitted. Many will be via the “grey” market – overseas TV channels that are legitimately showing the games but are intercepted by UK satellite receiving equipment and are then broadcast in pubs and clubs, or via in Covid-19 times, online channels, which is still in breach of the law in the United Kingdom.

We tend to think that illegal streaming is a problem associated with films or TV shows but studies carried out by organisations such as the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) suggest that approximately 25% of all Internet bandwidth is used for streaming illegal content, with this digital piracy costing the global economy more than $50 billion per annum.

To take the Premier League example again, the collective rights holders including Sky, BT Sports and Amazon made their decision to bid for the rights based on a return on investment model that included increasing the number of subscribers and thus their revenue per viewer. If they do not see this increase in revenue due to the amount of illegal streaming and downloads, they will potentially incur losses from the coverage they make and thus could reconsider their position when the next bidding window opens. Without the investment in the rights, the Premier League and thus the clubs will see a significant reduction in income. No TV deal means no global superstars gracing our pitches. Without the superstars, commercial partnerships will decline as global brands find alternative markets and icons for their millions. Just like the hyper-inflation of the players’ wages has driven up the value of the product (in this case the TV rights deal), consumers who are priced out devalue the product by accessing illegal content.

It isn’t just the economic harm that illegal streaming causes. In a report issued by the Office of National Statistics in 2019 they found that over 3 million Internet users who had streamed content illegally had seen their devices infected, over 1 million had been subsequently hacked and almost a million had been a victim of theft. Those numbers alone should be a deterrent to anyone buying a illegal streaming device or visiting websites that have links to unauthorised content. Malware, spyware and other digital nasties do not normally announce themselves to those who have inadvertently downloaded them onto their machines (ransomware excepted) – the cost of removing them ad repairing the damage they can wreak far outweighs the subscription fee to access events through legitimate channels.

Removing links to websites that are hosting illegally streams requires the co-ordination of the rights holder, the social media platform that has allowed users to share the links, and the website where the content is being streamed from. Quite a task for something happening live and in real time. Sporting events aren’t like the latest blockbuster movies – their interest reduces as soon as the event is over. Being able to monitor social media for infringing content is possible – having the enforcement team is the harder part. The role that the broadcast rights holders is also key. They have to do everything they can to protect their investment.

In a world where the consumption of media in the moment in a mobile environment is the norm rather than the exception, digital piracy detection and ultimately deletion is a major challenge for the broadcast holders. Whilst many other industries have seen their revenue models decimated by digital piracy, the sports industry have to content with the nature of consumption of their product (“in the moment”) in finding solutions, a challenge that technology alone can solve. The question is when and at what cost.

Don’t delete your domains…

….until you really understand the impact of losing them.

This isn’t a public service announcement by the domain name industry who want to ensure that every domain is renewed for eternity. Whilst that would be especially pleasing for the registry operators and the registrars who sell the domains, it is never going to happen.

Everyone who holds a portfolio of domain names should periodically carry out an audit on them to see if they are returning any value. Whether you own a portfolio of a couple or tens of thousands, you need to ensure that they all still hold value for you.

“We don’t have enough domain names” is not something you will ever hear a portfolio manager within an organisation say. Every year the same pressure to reduce the cost of their portfolio will be had with their registrar, who of course wants to see them spend more. So, in one corner there is a party motivated to increase the protection of their intellectual property but at a lower cost, whilst in the other corner there is a party who also want to increase the protection of their intellectual property but by buying more domain names and associated services. There is never a win-win but a stalemate could be reducing the number of domain names that generate value for a firm with new services that do.

Value can be measured in a number of ways – it isn’t all about the money. Some domain names are held defensively by organisations, for instance, either because they have previously been used in an infringing manner, or they simply don’t want someone else to register them. Others will be held relating to old marketing campaigns, brands or slogans which still generate some traffic. And naturally, some will be held because of the resale value they have.

But there is a danger when reviewing portfolios that names could be marked for deletion that have a risk to an organisation or an individual if they fall into the wrong hands. There are plenty of stories about domain names that have been deleted because they appear worthless but end up being sold on for significant sums but these aren’t normally the domains that are of concern. It’s the ones that have some other, often hidden, intrinsic value that we should be concerned about.

Most domain names have a history. Normally, that history is good. Like a car, they may go through a number of careful owners, being let to lapse before being recycled through the domain name life cycle and out again onto the open market to be registered. If a domain name is used for a nefarious purpose it is quite hard to find that out when it is repurchased and new registrant may have to deal with the sins of its previous owners. But while they are being held in a portfolio, they can acquire attributes that make them more valuable than a cursory glance may seem.

Therefore it is prudent that as part of any regular review of your domain names, and especially before you delete or decide not to renew any, that you follow these steps to determine whether you are about to give away any valuable IP or put your brand at risk.

  1. Where does your domain name resolve to?
  2. Where does your domain name rank in natural search?
  3. Is there any AdWord campaigns still using the domain name or keywords?
  4. Who owns other domains that use the same keywords?
  5. What incoming links are there to any websites that the domain name resolves to?
  6. Does the domain name have any monetary value?
  7. Are there any trademarks that align to the domain name?
  8. How would you feel is your biggest competitor acquired the domain name and started actively using it?
  9. How has the domain name been used previously both internally and externally?
  10. Is the domain name on any black list?

For most organisations the marginal cost of holding a domain name is negligible yet the potential return or on the flip side, damage, is significant. Over the next few posts we will go into detail about why you should follow the ten point plan for every domain name that you are thinking of deleting just so you know that you are not harming any revenue or reputation that they underpin.

Whilst there is no foolproof way to ensure that domain names with value are not cancelled, following a process that ensures you have done your due diligence before you press Delete will almost certainly mitigate the risk.

Super Bowl counterfeits

Despite the global pandemic having a major impact on both travel and sporting events across the world, last weekend saw the 55th Super Bowl take place in Tampa, Florida in front of approximately 22,000 NFL fans. Whilst the capacity for the event had been significantly reduced in light of Coronavirus and the necessary social distance measures and that for the first time in Super Bowl history, a host team had made the show piece event, interest from fans globally was probably stronger than ever.

One reason behind that was the presence of Tom Brady as the key man, the quarter back, for Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who was playing in his tenth Super Bowl in a career that had spanned over twenty years. Like him or loathe him, the battle between Brady and his 25 year old nemesis on the Kansas City side, Patrick Mahomes, was a major talking point in the run up to the game.

The shirts of the respective quarter backs are normally the best sellers in the run up to the Super Bowl. Fanatics, the NFL’s official e-commerce partner, reported that sales of Buccaneers shirts with Brady’s name on the back had become their best selling NFL shirt ever in the run up to the game in early February – in fact his number 12 shirt was the platform’s best selling item across all sports in the period from August to November. Interestingly, if you look at sales across the whole NFL season it wasn’t Brady but Mahomes’ name that drove the most sales.

In the two weeks before the game, the hot spot for people buying Brady’s shirt was Tampa – not really surprising considering that that is where the Buccaneers are based and also the location of the Raymond James Stadium, the venue for the Super Bowl.

The Covid-19 pandemic had not only had an impact on the number of people who could attend the game – the Raymond James Stadium has a capacity for nearly 66,000 fans, but also on those who could and would normally travel to the Super Bowl city to enjoy the weekend of partying. Social distancing meant that bars, restaurants and hotels had capacity-limiting measures in place that put thousands off making their annual pilgrimage. However, that didn’t stop the counterfeiters descending on the city with their illegal wares.

Operation Team Player is the annual joint agency effort aimed at cracking down on illegal merchandise and tickets being sold around the Super Bowl weekend. Customs Border Protection, Homeland Security and the host city’s law enforcement teams come together to make a concerted effort to remove as much counterfeit products as possible as well as trying to stop the trading of fake tickets. Last year in Miami, a record-breaking amount of $123 million worth of counterfeit sports goods were seized, with over 176,000 items found to be fake.

Perhaps surprisingly this year the team found a similar number of items (approximately 169,000) but the value was markedly lower – around $44 million which was in line with significantly less people travelling to the city for the event. It is perhaps a much lower figure because Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing in their home city and many of their fans, based locally, already had their merchandise. Likewise, the demand for tickets may have been lower due to the number of travelling fans being much less than normal. The authorities also singled out that the number of counterfeits entering the country was estimated to be much lower this year due to the pandemic.

The ongoing operation has taken almost a billion dollars of fake merchandise off the streets since it began in 2013 and extends beyond the National Football League’s annual final into other sports including Baseball, Ice Hockey and Basketball. For brand and rights holders their work is vital in the ongoing battle against counterfeiters. They know that it is unlikely there will a day when the war is won but at least they can go into the annual battlefield knowing their actions will at least hurt the enemy and protect the consumers.

Hello, i5 it m3 y0u are I00king for?

HeiIo…

Was that a real, genuine hello or a fake hello?

At first glance it seems genuine enough but that is because our brains translate what we see into what it thinks we want to see. It’s not a genuine hello as most of you will now see as I have replaced one of the ‘l’s with a capital ‘I’. The trouble is our mind is far more complex and intelligent than we give it credit for and rather than reading every letter we see, we focus on the first and last letters followed by the characters we would expect to find in a word while the exact order of the characters is less relevant for our understanding of a word. In other words, our brains are just too clever, backed up by Cambridge University who have carried out significant, or should we write singficant, research into what has been termed Typoglycemia – a neologism the cognitive processes involved in reading text.

Want some more proof? OK, well see how quickly you understand the following sentences despite them being littered with natural spelling mistakes:

“At shcool we were tuahgt taht slpeling was ipmorantt”

“The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe”

“Typoglycemia sneds my sepllchkehcer carzy”

It’s a good thing that our brains work in this way, right? In most instances, yes. It helps us absorb information quickly and react accordingly but it also opens us up to the risk of being fooled by cyber criminals who have used our new-found strength into a common weakness.

In 2019, according to a survey carried out by Retruster, 76% of businesses who responded said they have been victims of a phishing attack. That is a very scary stat and one that shows no signs of shrinking over time. Fortunately, most attacks aren’t genuine and many will go unnoticed, caught by our spam filters in email or simply laughed away as being so far fetched that they could never be true – I mean, would a deposed dictator of an African country really reach out blindly to any of us?

Why is the number of phishing attacks rising? Partly because of the increased use of domain names that are either deliberately spelt in a way to trip our brains into thinking they say something they don’t or by using mixed script where some subtle changes in using letters from non-Latin alphabets which means the domain names look like they reflect brand names or popular websites but in truth divert you to more nefarious locations.

These domain names are often called Homographs and are characterised by a mix of substitute letters or numbers with characters from Latin, Greek, Cyrillic and other scripts. Whilst the actual registration characters are made up of latin script characters, by using the “xn--” prefix, they are translated into local script when they appear in a browser or search bar. The danger of that is to most of us, we will not see the subtle nuances of the different characters and our brains will tell us that everything is in order.

Domain name registries are starting to provide solutions for the issues that surround homograph registrations. The TrueNameTM solution from Donuts for instance blocks homographic variations of any domain name that is registered in one of their TLDs, whilst Take a domain name such as university.degree. There doesn’t seem too many potential variants to two very common words, but you would be mistaken. There are actually 1,439 other variants that could be used to make a similar domain name, such as:

  • ʋniversity.degree
  • unıversity.degree
  • unɪversity.degree
  • uniᴠersity.degree

It is only when you see the actual characters that are used in the registration of the domain name that you can see how different they are to the original university.degree domain name:

  • xn--niversity-pje.degree (ʋniversity.degree)
  • xn--unversity-wpb.degree (unıversity.degree)
  • xn--unversity-c9d.degree (unɪversity.degree)
  • xn--uniersity-223d.degree (uniᴠersity.degree)

Thanks to Typoglycemia, our brains read the domain names perfectly, which could lead us down a path laid by a maleficent individual or group who are hell-bent on obtaining my personal and financial details. We all need to be aware that these dangers do exist in the digital world and it pays to double check not only the URL we are following but also whether the website we end up on is behaving the way it should. Am I being asked for my user name and password when normally I am logged in via the saved password and cookie stored on my machine? Why does the website need my credit card details if I am not buying anything? Does the website look different from when I was last on it?

Unfortunately, there is no real “retro fit” tool that can help us identify homograph domain names that have already been registered. Going forward, registries will almost certainly start to develop their own tools that can identify and stop any homographs that infringe on brand names and Intellectual Property from being registered but in the meantime it is important that we all try to be part of the solution and not the problem that our own human super computers is partly responsible for.

Five tell-tale signs of a Social Media scam

We’ve all seen the ads on our Social Media feeds. Items that look too good to miss at prices that seem like real bargains. We resist the temptation to buy but then we keep seeing the ads appear again and again over the course of the next few days. Some may believe this is down to the Law of Attraction, a hypothesis that if our subconscious wants something, we will become more attuned to seeing that object in our daily lives. Alas, it’s not “fate”, “destiny” or some magic that conspiracy theorists will attribute to 5G. This relates to the complex algorithms that the social media networks are constantly developing where the constant objective is to match buyer demand (social media users) with seller products (advertisers). It is a classic economic model of supply in most markets will meet demand.

There is no doubt that the use of Social Media has been instrumental in the growth of a number of brands as well as our choice as a consumer. It has allowed small brands to be seen on the widest possible stage without the need for huge marketing budgets. I, like many of you, will have bought items via seeing ads on Social Media that are tailored to my interests – craft beer, wall art and football shirts, for instance. Every time I click on an ad that data is recorded and used by the Social Media networks with other advertisers to serve the most relevant ad to me, whether they offer genuine products or not.

So how can you tell whether an advert that we see on Social Media is a genuine bargain or a scam? Fraudsters use the same tactics to grab the attention of Social Media users as genuine brands do but in the vast majority of cases they are looking for a quick return on their investment in Social Media advertising campaign

Whilst there are a number of ways to determine the legitimacy of any offers or adverts on Social Media, the five most common signs that should raise a red flag are as follows:

  1. Poor spelling and grammar – I’m not sure why something so simple to correct is often the biggest giveaway that an ad is a scam. Just as luxury brands will never use words such as “bargain” or even “discount”, standard ads that have spelling errors and simple grammatical mistakes are a giveaway. “Their” rather than “They are” or “a loud” rather than “allowed”.
  2. Eye-catching pricing and deep discounts – “If it looks too good to be true”. The best way to grab a Social Media users attention is to promote products that appear to be amazing or are at amazing prices. I’m sure we have all seen the fantastic coffee tables that have a giant iPad surface or projectors the size of a matchbox that can beam an image on the side of a building. The images used in the adverts are often all identical computer generated ones, meaning that any logo can be added based on the users preference.
  3. Lack of standard contact details and overly positive reviews – On the website of the company look for the contact details. If it is simply a contact us form then you should be suspicious. Most reputable companies will have a phone number, email address or even live chat to address any questions or issues. Also, look at the address of the company (if there is one). Check if it is a legitimate address. Search the address via a Search Engine and see what the results are – if there are multiple companies listed there it could simply be a poste restante, an address a company hires to have any post delivered to. Also, look out for overly positive reviews
  4. Multiple adverts, offering the same product using different domain names – If you start seeing the same ad time and time again but the domain name being used is different every time then it is worth considering why? Few brands will use a different website to offer the same products and services – any SEO expert will tell you the dangers to search rankings of duplicate content. But for the advertisers, having multiple domain names gives them some protection against domain names being suspended or taken down.
  5. Domain security including SSL – One almost sure-fire way to see if a website is suspicious is the date when the domain name was registered, which you can check via a simple lookup through http://www.whois.com. Most organisations will register domain names many months in advance of a product or brand launch, building their web presence and social media marketing from there. However, most of the Social Media scams tend to be published on websites where domain names have been registered recently. In addition, any websites that requires personal or financial data need to be protected by SSL. Few of these websites have that – in the final image above you can see there is an SSL logo but that is all it is, it isn’t a real SSL.

There are more tell-tale signs that can be used to distinguish between ads for real products and the fakes or non-existent ones but these five are the most commonest and quickest to use to verify the legitimacy. And remember, if an ad looks too good to be true, it probably is.