Resorting to this

There was no coincidence in the timing (again) of a number of social media posts I woke up to today, the so-called “Freedom Day”. The hot weather here in the UK has seen hundreds of thousands of Brits head to the beach as the “staycation” as taken over from the “vacation”. Many prospective holiday makers will not risk booking an overseas trip just yet whilst the destinations list remains so fluid in terms of restrictions going out and coming back in. So most of us will stay right here in the beautiful British Isles.

With restrictions being eased, then bookings at some of the most popular locations have understandably gone through the roof. One of the most popular family destinations is Center Parcs, who have a number of parks across the UK, with plenty of outdoor activities for all as well as restaurants and their spa facilities. Such is the demand for accommodation in their parks that it is often hard to find any free spaces. But fear not because they are offering a free break for four people, plus spending money and all travel paid. And it couldn’t be easier to enter the competition – just share the competition page on Facebook, comment and like it. Who wouldn’t enter that with it being so easy.

Except we all know that because it is too easy there should be a red flag being frantically waved in our heads. Let’s take a look at what can be found on Facebook.

Picture 1 is a genuine Center Parcs UK post – a news story about a location for a new site being found in West Sussex. There isn’t a call to action, the spelling and grammar are spot on, the logo is correct, the name of the company is also correct and they have been verified with the blue tick.

Picture 2 is the first attempt at trying to pretend to be Center Parcs. As you can see they have made a terrible attempt at spelling the company name plus there is some poor grammar in the text. Picture 3 is better, at least the name is correct but the logo isn’t. The pictures are taken direct from the Center Parcs website.

Irrespective if they are genuine-looking, why would Center Parcs have any reason or motivation to give away such a prize? They are turning people away such is the demand for staycations. Why would they need you to “Like”, “Share” and “Comment” on the post?

Because this is all about collecting as much personal data from social media users as possible which can be used or sold on at a later date. When I first saw the “competition” on Facebook, over 33,000 had shared it, even more had liked it. Who is to say that a significant percentage may be contacted because they have “won” the holiday? What is the next step? An admin fee payable, which requires bank details to be shared?

I know the last 18 months have been tough on us all, and the thought of a holiday is incredibly tempting which is why we all need to be extra vigilant and really think before we are tempted to act. If you see similar offers, take a step back and ask “what’s in it for them”? Big brands rarely give away anything so cheaply, yet thousands of social media users will.

It’s coming home…but is it real?

After 18 months of restrictions, regulations and down right misery for many in England, the performance of the England National Football Team in the European Championships has been a source of escapism for many and downright joy and national pride for the rest. In case you didn’t already know, It’s coming home* this week. Should England overcome Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday night they will face a final in London on Sunday night against either Italy, the favourites, and previous winners, Spain. It’s a tough ask, but the team under the management of Gareth Southgate, has given the nation hope at a time when it was seriously lacking. Good times indeed. But good times also bring bad people out in force, looking to exploit the situation and profit from the opportunity.

The interest and support for the England team has led to unprecedented demand both for tickets for games to see them play at Wembley and for replica shirts. Prior to the tournament, an official Nike England shirt (adult size) would cost a minimum of £70, and there was stock with most of the online retailers. Three weeks later and it is almost impossible to find one in the same stores.

That is excellent news for Nike, the manufacturer, the retailers and also the Football Association who will also get a cut from each sale. But it is also excellent news for the scammers and counterfeiters who will play on that increased demand and limited supply to fill the vacuum. There have been adverts on social media in recent weeks, carefully designed to say they aren’t selling the actual Nike replica shirts, but using language and imagery that suggests they are. Many of these stores will be genuine, but the products not what people are expecting. But there will also be online retailers who are offering what appears to be the genuine items but nothing will ever arrive – they have been scammed out of personal and financial information. That is hardly a feel-good moment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much searching to find websites selling the shirts at what appears to be too good to be true pricing (search “cheap England replica shirt” and see for yourself), whilst a search on some of the more popular market place websites review very cheap products, but using imagery from the back which means the images avoid detection from brand recognition software and also allows the sellers to ship low quality goods.

The cheap and often infringing merchandise situation is nothing new. In the US, Operation Team Player is the annual crackdown on merchandise around the Super Bowl. In the days leading up to the last Super Bowl in Tampa in February 2021, over 169,000 counterfeit items, with a street value of $44 million were seized. The war on counterfeits continues, fuelled by rampant demand for products such as the replica shirts.

It isn’t only fake merchandise which will cause issues in the next week for football fans. Whilst the number of fans allowed into Wembley has increased as social distancing regulations have been relaxed, the 90,000 capacity stadium will not be full, which means tickets will be at an extra premium. The face value price for tickets for the Final on Sunday range from £250 to approximately £815. Ticket resale websites are selling them from £1,800 per ticket up to £15,000.

If England do beat Denmark then demand for a place at Wembley for the team’s biggest game in over 50 years will be huge. The good news is that Covid-19 has meant that paper tickets have been replaced by e-tickets, which can be transferred securely via the UEFA App, so the sight of ticket touts/scalpers, on the way to the stadium with fistfuls of tickets is thankfully a thing of the past. However, like genuine buyers, they too have gone digital and will claim to be able to transfer tickets immediately to a willing buyer.

With entry on digital devices by QR Codes, the danger is that rather than tickets being sold, they are screenshots of a genuine ticket, sold multiple times, which can only be verified as genuine on arrival at the stadium and presentation of the QR code. If it has already been used, then access will be denied, meaning someone could have paid a huge sum for what appears to be a genuine ticket, only to find out at the last minute it is counterfeit.

Unfortunately, there is very little that can be done to stop this happening – should England lose to the Danes then that is one way whereby demand will fall very quickly, but even then tickets will be changing hands about face value for the final.

The message hasn’t changed – if something looks too good to be true it probably is, whether that is an England shirt for a big discount or tickets to the sold out final. Whilst we all want to play our part in supporting our nation in what could be our biggest and most successful week of football since 1966, we also need to be pragmatic enough not to be part of the problem fuelling intellectual property infringements and making the lives of the fraudsters easier and richer.

Enjoy the games and Come On England!

And yes, I do believe It’s Coming Home*

*It’s coming home is the opening line to a song, first released back in 1996 by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and The Lightning Seeds for the 1996 European Championships held in England, and re-released two years later for the 1998 World Cup. Unfortunately, England didn’t manage to bring the trophy home on either occasion, nor at any subsequent tournament they have taken part in.

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.

Interview techniques

Having spent the last few months looking at opportunities in the market place, I am getting familiar with the tactics used by organisations to “streamline” the process. The last time I was looking for work was sixteen years ago when LinkedIn had just started to be a thing and the reliance was on searching print media for job openings as well as some of the bigger online recruiters. Most insisted on a face to face interview to discuss your cv, your job ambitions and what potential openings they had.

Today, it has all changed. It is now very easy for a company to post a position online, create an automated process and quickly create short-lists based on algorithms, AI and automation. The consequence is that far more applicants are applying for each job listed, because the odds of making a short-list have been significantly reduced as the filtering based on a cv or a LinkedIn profile can be done by computers in seconds. Consequently, with in many instances the human element in the initial job search being removed, more applicants apply, creating a catch 22 situation.

In the excitement to find an interesting role that ticks as many boxes as it can, we are often prepared to give away more personal information than is often needed. But we do so because the prize is so worthwhile. Except, what if there isn’t a job? What if the ad posted online is simply an elaborate phishing scheme to get candidates to share personal data that could be used for their financial gain?

Employment/Recruitment scams are nothing new. They have been with us for many years and have cost some victims thousands of pounds. There have been cases of individuals selling up and moving their families to a new country because they have a new role only to find on day one that there was never a job and the fees they paid to sort out visas or short-term accommodation have been pocketed by fraudsters. But the acceptance of our digital lives today has led us to be less cautious when it comes to giving out personal details.

It would take a fraudster a matter of minutes to create a fake company profile on Social Media, adding in a few exotic office locations, a fictitious management team and of course, some interesting open vacancies as the company looks to expand into new markets. Applicants for the roles need to submit CVs, a cover letter and complete a suitability questionnaire, all designed to glean information that could be resold on, or used by the fraudsters themselves to lure the candidate deeper into their web of lies.

Sounds far fetched? Well, have a read of this article, written by security expert Brian Krebs who reports on just this type of scam taking place a few weeks ago. This is just one example of a practice that is still far too common, especially as it looks to exploit those who may be in desperate need of employment. We need to take as many cautionary steps when seeking a new role as we do when buying from an unknown online store, or responding to a dubious text or WhatsApp message, and be especially wary if the firm approaches you cold, with an amazing offer of employment.

It doesn’t take much to determine whether a job opening is real or not. Whilst many of us will use LinkedIn or popular job sites such as Indeed, most firms will also list the roles on their own websites. So a starting point is to check to see if the role exists there. Still unsure about the company? When did they register their domain name – if it appears very recent and through a proxy registration that should be a red flag. Look at their address on an online map – does it appear to be real? When you search for the address, what companies are listed? Use tools such as Glassdoor to check on what current and former employees say about the business. Also, search for key individuals on LinkedIn – do they appear to be genuine?

The global economy is still in a state of flux and with economic support for many firms slowly being reduced, the employment market is likely to hot up again. A major “supply” of available people will ultimately increase the demand on vacant positions, and the one thing we know from the world of the fraudsters is when demand increases, so too does fraud.

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.

Pop Quiz

“The name of your first pet + your mother’s maiden name is your stripper name”

I’m sure we have all seen similar questions on Social Media that are designed “just for a laugh” and when we read some of the responses they can be quite amusing. But they are also very revealing. Too revealing in all honesty.

Mother’s maiden name is a frequent question that is part of identification and verification used by many banks and institutions that keep our personal and financial information secure. Whilst we may feel the question is harmless, if a criminal is trying to build a profile of someone, then it is another piece in the jigsaw. Questions about people’s first cars, favourite teachers and best holidays can easily be neatly packaged into something that looks fun on Social Media but is designed to gather valuable information.

Whilst “Speedy McGraw” may mean nothing to anyone else, to a criminal it is two pieces of valuable information they can use in the future not just to try to trick you into revealing more information by pretending to be from a bank or other official institute that needs to urgently discuss important matters with you, but can be very valuable to resell onto more hardened criminals whose intentions are certainly not whimsical.

A large number of people seem to think because someone is asking a question on Social Media then their identity and intentions are known and well meaning. Few of us would respond to a random email asking such questions as “Can I just ask what is your Mother’s maiden name?” nor would we give that information to a stranger who approached us in the street, but on Social Media, as part of a “bit of fun” then many people share away.

For those who are active on Social Media, it is important to ensure your have the right levels of privacy on your profiles and limit who can see that information. Is it really necessary to have your full date of birth on there for instance? All your family members? First School? Pet Names? And so on. Cyber criminals can build profiles in a matter of minutes for some people and then put in place sophisticated attacks that can be devasting.

We all have a part to play in keeping ourselves and those around us safe – a good starting point is just to think what you are sharing and who with.

Daisy May – April 2021, Milton Keynes

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.

Fliking raising its ugly head again

Back in 2016, the growing issue of fake reviews being offered for sale became a major concern for market place websites, who vowed to clamp down on the unethical, and in many places, illegal practice. Fliking” (fake liking) became a trend that was an issue not only for the market places but the brand holders and consumers.

Fliking (Fl-ike-ing) is my word for this practice. Meaning to solicit or buy social media likes, tweets or positive reviews….or simply fraud. Paying someone to say something that could be untrue can be classed as misleading, false advertising or fraudulent.

Despite the efforts from the major marketplaces, the issue still exists as highlighted in a new report by Which? The consumer group found 10 websites selling fake reviews from £5 each and incentivising positive reviews in exchange for payment or free products.

Just over two years ago, another Which? report highlighted the issue of fake reviews and how they were being used to trick consumers. Eighteen months ago they updated that report, sharing the truth that very little had changed. Unfortunately, as their most recent report shows, the unethical practice is still happening on the major marketplaces today.

Because our relationships with brands and marketplaces changed so much over the last year thanks to enforced restrictions and lockdown we face. We now rely on online shopping more so than ever and, more importantly, have had to adapt to communicating with others through technology rather than in person. That has led to a rise in people seeking reviews and opinions before they make purchases. Social media expert Erik Qualmann found in a study that over 90% of shoppers are influenced by Social Media and trust peer recommendations over adverts. In Which? survey of more than 2,000 UK adults in 2018, 97% use online customer reviews when researching a product. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) estimates that over £23 billion per annum of UK consumer spending is influenced by online customer reviews.

So why is this an issue? Fake reviews leads to consumers buying products that may be poor quality, or may not even exist at all. The more positive reviews a product gets, the higher ranked it may appear on some market place sites, and thus starts a Catch22 situation. Consumers could end up buying products that are sub-standard or even dangerous based on the fake reviews. Any brand holder will tell you that one of the keys to a successful Social Media strategy is getting your message in front of the right people at the right time. Whilst they will use social media or peer review sites to great effect, so too do the fraudsters.

The Which? report found that these weren’t small organisations who were offering the fake reviews. One of the businesses they researched had more than 700,000 reviewers on their books, who are offered incentives such as payments, free or discounted products and the opportunity to take part in loyalties schemes.

The big market place sites such as Amazon go to great lengths to try to spot and stop fake reviews but with so many products offered on one of the world’s biggest websites it is an ongoing, uphill battle. We, as consumers need to play our part in the fight against this unethical and illegal practice. We need to be on the lookout for some tell-tale signs that could reveal products that have fake reviews. These could include:

  • Too many 5-star, positive reviews – Be cautious of products that aren’t household names that have a plethora of overly positive reviews, especially if they have been added in a short period of time. Even great products will have some 3 or 4 star reviews.
  • Copycat reviews – Look for common language in reviews which could suggest that they are template reviews.
  • Look for verified purchases – On many websites actual product purchasers who submit a review are annotated as being “verified”. Whilst this isn’t a fool-proof method of identification, fake reviewers do not tend to buy the products in the first place.
  • Check the reviewers profile – If you are unsure about a review, look at the reviewers profile and see what other products they have been reviewing. Few people will spend all day adding reviews unless they are being incentivised to do so.
  • If it looks too good to be true – The final test is the most basic. If a review doesn’t sit right with you, pass on by.

It is an unfortunate byproduct of our thirst for a bargain and our reliance on online marketplace websites that fraudsters continue to find ways to cause brand holders and consumers issues. Fliking is another example of how criminals have adapted their behaviours to take advantage of the current economic situation, one which consumers need to be aware of and prepared to take an additional step to ensure that they stay safe and secure when shopping online.