- by Stuart Fuller, Head of Brand Services -
In a recent 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 during the last six months and how PMI and others have strengthened their Corporate Social Responsibility outreach to protect customers.
The restrictions placed on society in general has led to a boom in the digital economy as consumers have been driven online. This has opened up the opportunities for scammers and the risks to consumers in being scammed. No one area of the economy has been immune to this, but one sector that has been a key target for abuse has been the pharmaceutical industry.
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. Whilst most consumers know that a vaccine is not available, and unlikely to be for many months. However, for those who are desperate for something, they will be duped. Scammers and counterfeiters give consumers hope, albeit false, that they have the answers and many have been taken in by this.
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.
“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 the US Chamber of Commerce, Proctor & Gamble and Merk & Co, using their resources to develop strategies that both inform customers of the dangers of buying counterfeit and the impact it has on wider society.
It hasn’t just been goods that have been the focus of the counterfeiters. Scammers have played the system to apply for financial assistance, grants, loans and insurance where it has been made available. One case was highlighted by the BBC this week of an individual whose personal details were used to set up a bogus company and apply for a £50,000 COVID bail-outs scheme called the Bounce Back Loan Scheme.
The BBC investigation found that criminal gangs are setting up fake businesses on an industrial scale - gangs steal victims' personal details using phishing emails or buying them on criminal forums. They then set up a bogus business in their name, apply for the £50,000 loans. Whilst the Government will stress that it does take appropriate measures to ensure the applicants are who they say they are, every business should be taking the necessary steps to protect themselves against potential risks such as phishing attacks.
Whilst we all battle on a number of fronts to keep the “new normal” it is worth remembering the work that the likes of PMI are doing behind the scenes. Consumer education cannot be underestimated in a time of fake news, fake advertising and fake products being pushed in front of our collective eyes.