In a welcome pre-Christmas boost for legitimate online retailers, the playing field was levelled slightly this week as Nominet, the ultimate controller of all 'dot uk' web addresses, closed down 1,219 .co.uk domains that have been tempting consumers with designer goods at bargain prices. Many of the sites involved, mostly operated from the far East, supplied counterfeit goods or in some cases simply failed to supply anything to those who placed orders.
The mass take-down is a result of the Police Central e-Crime Unit's Operation Papworth, which targeted websites run by organised criminal networks which purported to sell designer items — including Ugg Australia boots, ghd hair straighteners and jewellery from Tiffany & Co and Links of London. Shoppers were duped into making what appeared to be bargain purchases, but received either nothing at all or counterfeit products.
Many of the sites ranked very well in search results through the use of black-hat SEO techniques. A search today for "cheap ugg boots", for example, brings up a screenful of links to similar-looking sites with keyword-stuffed summaries which now won't load — as well as a couple of legitimate sites and some others that look less than confidence-inspiring but are registered in other territories.
"Fraudsters target the victim's desire to buy designer goods at reduced prices, particularly at this time of year," says Detective Superintendent Charlie McMurdie, head of the PCeU . "The risk begins when your desire to purchase blinds your judgement or leads you to illegal websites. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is."
The fraudulent sites were identified by the police, working with Consumer Direct, Trading Standards, the Office of Fair Trading and manufacturers. The vast majority of the sites were registered from Asia, despite their UK domain names, mostly using false or misleading contact details. This made it almost impossible for victims to complain about poor quality, counterfeited items or goods not received. It also makes it difficult for Trading Standards or other law enforcement agencies to take action. The PCeU worked in partnership with Nominet , the body responsible for UK domain name registrations, to identify and suspend the domains, taking them down at the registry level to prevent re-registration.
The unit says it is now working with The Office of Fair Trading, Nominet and other domain name registrars to prevent the future fraudulent registration of sites using false or misleading details.