POPULAR online shopping sites such as eBay and Amazon have been “taken over” by organised crime, and the brand name goods they sell are “98 per cent certain” to be fake, MSPs were told yesterday.
Scotland’s booming black market also means criminal gangs are operating “protectionist” rackets across Scotland, forcing small shopkeepers to sell fake alcohol and cigarettes.
The climate of austerity and growing inequality is driving hard-up Scots to seek out bargains – which fake goods can often appear to be, Holyrood’s economy committee was told yesterday.
Illicit trade costs more than £1 billion a year in lost taxes and is worth tens of millions to the fraudsters involved.
George Clyde, vice-chairman of the Scottish Anti-Illicit Trade group told MSPs that global brands such as Nike, Adidas and Superdry were taking part in a drive to tackle the issue.
“We would put it that buying clothing and footwear from any of the platforms, the auction houses, you’re going towards a 98 per cent certainty that the goods are not going to be genuine,” he said.
“There’s very little on these sites now where Mrs Smith is selling two extra tops that she got last Christmas. That’s really gone.
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“It is a fact that the sites have been taken over by organised crime. It’s very difficult for the sites to police themselves and they tend to sit back and ask the brands to police them for them.”
EBay has developed a software programme for brands which allows them to delete listings on the site.
But Mr Clyde added: “EBay, Amazon, they all realise that they have problems.”
Inspector Alan Dron, of Police Scotland, said it is a “very difficult area” for the authorities to tackle.
He said sites such as Gumtree and Facebook were also hotbeds for illicit sales.
MSPs were taking evidence from police, customs chiefs and business leaders to gauge the extent of the illicit trade in Scotland which covers alcohol, cigarettes, DVDs, medicines and clothing.
In the past seven months alone, Police Scotland have seized £22 million of fake goods but this is likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”.
John Lee, of the Scottish Grocers Federation, said many fake goods were being sold in some of the 5,000 convenience stores across the country.
“In the case of illicit alcohol, what we hear from colleagues at HMRC is that there’s a lot of pressure put on retailers from criminals to take and sell illicit goods. They’re put under severe pressure and often with the threat of violence to sell illicit goods.”
“A lot of the time this is underpinned by serious and organised crime, and the pressure on retailers to become involved is, unfortunately, very serious.”
Nationalist MSP Joan McAlpine said this was tantamount to a “version of protectionism”.
A spokesman for eBay said the company devoted “substantial human and technological resources to making eBay an extremely unwelcome platform for sellers of counterfeit goods.”
It works with more than 30,000 “brand rights owners”, from major labels to smaller brands, who all have an electronic “hotline” to eBay to find and remove items of concern.
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